I Believe I Can Fly

I Believe I Can Fly

James Lipton talks high-flyin in Alaska.


Once again, I must begin my blog with gratitude to all of you who have gone to the time and trouble of reading my thoughts and, most important, responding to them with yours.

As I've moved into cyberspace, like Alice venturing warily through the looking glass, I've discovered its foremost virtue: It breaks through the television screen and brings us face to face. Since Inside the Actors Studio is in 84,000,000 homes in America and 125 countries around the world, the audience is a vast, mysterious, faceless crowd. Cyber-space pierces the darkness and shines a light on both of us: on me because the blog is, literally, a glimpse into my thinking, for whatever it's worth -- and is equally a forum for your thoughts, which are worth a great deal to those of us who launch each episode of Inside the Actors Studio on its voyage into uncharted waters.

Among the many responses to my last blog, I was moved by John Hewitt's modern-day version of "The Gift of the Magi," as, in his words, "On Christmas morning two copies of your book were revealed -- the one I'd bought her, and the one she'd bought me.... I read the final two chapters aloud to her as we drove home today, and when we got to the Martha Graham story, and the final poem, we were both weeping." That is, of course, music to an author's ears, as are all the other kind words about Inside Inside, like Karen Sucher's: "My son, Kevin, gave me a copy of your book for Christmas -- and I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it"; and Susan Hopman's "Thanks for all the time and effort you put into making a great book.... It is now my favorite book, to be reread many times."

To Jane, I promise that, once the strike is over (I'm a member of the Writers Guild), we'll be back in our slot at 8 p.m. on Monday nights on Bravo with an exciting lineup of guests who have been waiting to come to our stage since the strike began. Wait till you see what we plan for our 200th episode!

To Tony in the UK: Our next DVD will be the storied Robin Williams episode -- with more than thirty minutes of his unique genius that's never been seen before, since time limitations in the original two-hour show meant leaving some gleaming treasures behind in the edit room. Many of you have remarked on the excerpts from the book that I've included in my blogs, so, with your indulgence, I'll conclude this blog with another. As those of you who have read the book know, it is a compendium of the heroes of my life -- and its passions, one of which is flying. Among the fifty photographs in the book, one is of a 1956 Aeronca, owned by Bob Curtis, "The Bald Eagle of the Yukon," which I flew across the Alaska Range in the dead of a northern winter, fulfilling a lifetime ambition to be, at least for a few days, a bush pilot like Curtis. Another photo, as its caption explains, is of "the cliff face off the wingtip in Rainy Pass, moments before the engine died."

Here, from the text of the book, is the solution to that ominous enigma:

The route I'd chosen was the Iditarod Trail, site of the annual Alaskan dogsled race that traverses the most formidable terrain in the state. To be frank, that was what attracted me to it. The Iditarod Trail begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome, and our flight plan called for making it through the Alaskan Range's notorious Rainy Pass in time to spend the night in the tiny gold-mining village of McGrath. With the brief Alaskan day ticking away, we arrived at the mountains; and as the pass loomed ahead, massive and formidable, so did the weather, turning, as it does in Alaska, or in any bush environment, on a dime. We were flying into the teeth of a snowstorm. The pass was treacherous in the best of conditions: a long, narrow corridor near the top of the range, with canyon walls of jagged ice, frequently no more than fifty feet off our wingtips on either side, and a five-thousand-foot drop below -- the whole environment vanishing completely in brief whiteouts as the snowfall intensified.

I'd taken the controls for most of the flight, with Bob confining himself to take-offs and landings, for which the plane's unfamiliar skis disqualified me. The pass was one of the challenges I'd looked forward to, and as we entered it, Bob, bravely or foolishly, said the hallowed words, "Your airplane," and settled back with his arms folded over his ample paunch, and his feet on the floor, off the rudder pedals. White-knuckled but in a state of indescribable elation, I steered the pitching plane through the maze, mile after unforgettable mile. And then, half an hour into the pass, the engine coughed and quit cold.

In the stunning silence, I glanced at the Eagle, who hadn't stirred. His eerie calm told me either that he was an utterly resigned fatalist, or knew something about his plane that I didn't know. I fervently hoped it was the latter.

After a few moments, as the powerless plane began settling slowly into the frigid abyss, the Eagle leaned forward and peered at a yellowed plastic tube that emerged from the Aeronca's high wing and entered the engine through a hole in the cowling. In the air, I'd encountered one more "by-the-way": the plane contained no gas gauge. Instead, the Eagle kept an eye on that plastic line as we switched back and forth from the tank in one wing to the tank in the other to keep the plane in balance. We'd recently switched from the finally depleted right tank to the left one, which in theory, contained enough gas to take us to our destination. But the left gas line was conspicuously empty.

"Right aileron," the Eagle said, more casually than was, in my view, appropriate. I twisted the yoke, putting us into a right bank that headed us toward the jagged right cliff-face. Assuming that the Eagle knew what he was doing (what choice did I have?), I held the bank as the canyon wall loomed.

"Left rudder," the Eagle suggested in the ominous quiet.

I pressed my foot into the left rudder pedal, balancing the forces of the right aileron. That realigned the plane's axis with the center of the pass, on course, but left us in a slip, flying forward at a rakish thirty-degree angle, one wing down, the other up. One of the consequences of any slip is a rapid loss of altitude, which was the last thing I wanted to do in this instance, but the Eagle's glacial calm was somehow contagious: he was, after all, in his element. We waited, my eyes following his to the empty gas line, which hovered above us with the left wing, as the plane, gliding on its right side like a sidestroking swimmer with one arm stuck inexplicably up in the air, sank relentlessly toward the narrowing gorge below.

"Steepen it," the Eagle said.

I looked at him. He was expressionless, his eyes on the unresponsive gas line. With what was now a pure act of faith, I steepened the bank to forty-five degrees from vertical. Needing no prompting, I jammed the rudder hard-left to maintain course. Obedient to the laws of aerodynamics, the plane glided forward -- and sank faster.

My faith in the Eagle -- and his in the Aeronca -- turned out to be justified. After a few moments, gravity overcame whatever was blocking the gas line, blue avgas burbled down it into the engine, which ignited, cleared its throat and burst into full-throated roar. No airplane engine has ever sounded louder -- or more beautiful.

If it hadn't, I wouldn't be writing these words now, or have had the profound pleasure of being involved for the past fourteen years with the Actors Studio Drama School, Inside the Actors Studio, Inside Inside and you.

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