As we near my old friend's birthday (September 23, 1950, Amityville, New York), memories float back to Chris Cooke. An actor, producer, writer, and stage theatre founder. I met Chris in Harrisburg in the early 80s. I was an out of work filmmaker and sometime graphic designer. Chris had just come into town with hopes of teaching theatre at the Harrisburg Area Community College with a friend of his from Gettysburg College. But, Chris soon had bigger ideas: a stage production company.
He founded The Commonwealth Stage Company at The People Place (an arts center). The director of the Center introduced us. Chris needed design help, and I needed a creative diversion. I designed the stage company's logo and quickly agreed to design the posters for all the upcoming productions. Chris had no money (nor did I), but I agreed to pitch-in because, well, I wanted a creative outlet and theatre was new to me—although I'd always held an interest. I'd only heard of Samuel Beckett at that point and didn't know much more other than Waiting For Godot. Chris properly introduced me to more of his work. Before long, I was designing sets for the company, designing and running the lights, and generally doing whatever else needed done creatively. That grew into directing. I designed sets for and directed two Beckett productions: Waiting For Godot, and Endgame. As things usually go when there's never enough money, the theatre company folded after a few hard-fought but dynamic years. But, Chris and I remained friends.
Chris moved to Long Island and founded The Long Island Film Festival. It still exists. All through those years, Chris managed to act on-stage, television, and film. In film, Chris Cooke appeared in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Simple Men. Gary Burghhoff (Radar from M*A*S*H) had Chris appear in his thriller, Small Kill. He worked on Maurice Phillips' tv film, Second Sight: Parasomnia, starring Clive Owen. He acted in Dave Campfield's Under Surveillance. And, he starred in my longtime friend and collaborator, Paul deNooijer's Dutch feature film, Exit (which I helped write and also appear in). Chris even played a bit role as a less-than-savory Santa Claus in Michael J. Fox's prime time show, Spin City. Chris appeared in a few of my own short pieces, among them, Sparring Partners (along with Gene Hosey).
My dear friend fought demons, as many creative geniuses do, but knowing him, working with him, and drinking with him, was among the best years in my creative life. Chris died April 27, 2013 in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida from complications during an operation. I'm sorry I wasn't there for him more. But, Chris wasn't an easy man to help. Still, there was no one smarter, more insightful, and more supportive of other creative people than Chris Cooke. Knowing him allowed me to grow. Chris lived life that way he wanted and remained a rebel till the day he left us.
Mark Chandler Bailey & Chris Cooke, The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
Chris Cooke & Gene Hosey, Sparring Partners (2001)
Chris Cooke, during a visit to his home on Long Island (circa 2003)