On August 8, 2021, Actor Alec Baldwin came to the lawn of our church in Orient. He held an inaugural conversation in our series called “Spirituality In Light Of” …. His topic was Spirituality in the light of Covid.
Alec hit a kind of lecture circuit home run that evening. His theme was what the virus had done to him and his family. People who came for the celebrity appeal left with a new friend. Baldwin could easily have behaved badly in this Normal Rockwell scene. He did just the opposite. He knew nothing of sarcasm or condescension. Instead, he seemed like a regular guy who had come over to the North Fork from the South Fork to do a friend (me) a favor and talk about how he sees God and faith in the Covid mess.
I was the new pastor at the Orient, Long Island church and had known Alec in Greenwich Village, where I was also a pastor. We met talking about the Judson Memorial Church front sign, which he credits with having convinced him to come to NYU and the city long ago. The sign then read something now famous, “Beware the Military industrial Complex” by Dwight D Eisenhower. Since the sixties, the sign has quoted and misquoted a lot of famous people. It should have put up something on October 21, 2021, when the set of Rust endured an accidental real shooting, which was supposed to be pretend. That sign could easily have read that week, “I am so sorry, Alec Baldwin.”
Alec, that day, again moved out of the role of complex celebrity into the role of human. Yes, the police think he has an anger management problem, yes, the paparazzi attack his wife for her name, yes, he impersonated the President on Saturday night Live, and yes, he played a famous buffoon from high up in Rockefeller Center. He has an edge. And yes, when that terrible accident happened during a “Western”, he could only say, I’m so sorry.
If we ever do get to the bottom of what happened, that will be great. The truth is better than conjectures. Was he set up? Was there foul play from the Union that was being worked too hard by his production company? Was it just fatigue and laziness or bad training? Was it all these things in a twisted Shakespearian brew?
You know the reigning theory of plane crashes? “It’s not one thing but the combination of several stupidities, plus a neglect or two.”
I don’t write to defend my friend—who doesn’t need to be protected. Nor do I write to accuse him. I write to understand the role of accident, even if it has an underbelly of mischief or malevolence, and a dab of neglect. What do you do after something like that happens to you and around you? How do you talk to your children about it? He has a lot of children. I write to understand spirituality in the light of accidental death. I write to understand how much pity celebrities dare have or be given. Whose story is this? The murdered one or the murderer?
An old friend ran over his two-year-old child. The child died. He has never forgotten nor have I. He is not a celebrity.
Baldwin belongs to a great crowd of celebrities who get to live through and off their celebrity. It is a blessing and a burden. Maybe I will invite him over to speak about Spirituality in the Light of Celebrity. Or murder. He has probably become an expert on confusion. Surely the Spirit shines light on that regular visitor.
Lots of celebrities join ordinary people in having crosses to bear. “Something” is sure to happen to people who live outloud. And it sure did. Maybe Alec will get out of the kitchen because he can’t stand the heat. Very few people do. More should. He will surely remain a different kind of patriot, like the one he was on SNL. He could become the poster child against guns. Maybe movie sets could clean up their acts and fake the noises that kill better. Or let their industry take the lead in keeping guns out of the first act, in the first place, in way too many places in the first place. Do movies really need guns? Why?
Victor Frankel said, “We can’t change innocent suffering, but we can make our own responses to it.” I pray that Alec will use his freedom to turn his trouble into art. The shame and blame culture doesn’t think very well spiritually or artistically. We think if we can just find out who shot the bullet, or who is to blame, then we will have solved the problem, whatever it is. That kind of thinking makes for bad art as well as bad politics. Beware the military industrial complex if you want, but beware blaming yourself or others even more. Nobody is perfect, and when it comes to guns, the military and its complexes join guns in being very good at imperfection.