The Recent Loss Of The Late, Great Eric Tunney
I was on my way to work the other day when, quite unexpectedly, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of Eric.
It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular. At least not that I was aware of. One minute I was on a city bus staring out the window, the next I was frantically searching my bag for tissues before the stranger beside me realised I was crying. Tears just started to flow.
It was so strange. I hadn’t been thinking of him at that moment, hadn’t seen something that suggested death or loss. It just came out of nowhere. Struck me like a rogue wave.
Grief is like that.
I have been thinking of Eric a lot these past few weeks. But the memory that comes most to the fore every time, took place when we were touring together.
I can’t even recall where or when – although the memory has a slight Northern-Ontario flavour. Another comic was driving but I can’t remember who it was; there were that many road trips…
Eric was in the passenger’s seat next to the driver and I was in the back, behind him. We had been traveling to the gig all that day, so obviously it was a decent distance away from home, and I had been teasing Eric about his always immaculate appearance.
“You are St. Eric of the Immaculate Conception,” I giggled, “The Patron Saint of cool hair and nice suits. Never a hair out of place, never a button missed, never a wrinkle.”
Eric smiled radiantly, twirling his unlit cigar in hand. He was wearing a smart-but-casual linen fishing hat, a short-sleeved vintage print shirt, and beige linen trousers. He finished the look off with a good pair of Ray-bans. His free arm rested on the rolled-down window, fingers tapping along with the music on the car stereo. He looked like he’d stepped right out of a men’s summer catalogue from the 1950’s. He looked so cool. He was the essence of ease in that tall lanky frame. Always seemed so comfortable in his own skin.
“Seriously now, how do you do that?” I continued, “Linen yet! You are the only man I know who could wear a linen suit and never have a wrinkle. I bet you wake up like that too! I’ll bet you just roll out of bed and give your head a shake and everything falls into place, right? Hair, clothing and all!”
He smiled that gentle warm smile of his and actually denied it. He even had the nerve to suggest that he woke up a mess. Needless to say, neither myself nor the driver believed it.
He was – in that moment in time – a peaceful, enlightened Buddha. Not a care in the world. The sun was shining. He was on the road doing what he loved. He was spotlessly dressed. He had a cigar.
He was young, very, very funny and beautiful – inside and out. A star child. He was destined for great things. Anyone could see that. There was never any doubt.
The morning after the show I was rushing to pack my gear and get downstairs to join the boys for the trip to the next town. There was a knock at my door. I opened it and there stood Eric.
He was wearing tartan boxer shorts, a white t-shirt and black socks – one higher than the other. His head was down and his hair was wild and covered his face. He hadn’t shaved or washed.
He eyed me through his tussled mane, sleepy eyes and four o’clock shadow and then, without another word, he turned and went back to his room satisfied that he had made his case.
“So you’re saying you have to work at it?” I shouted after him.
But I still didn’t believe him. Afterall, his t-shirt had been spotless.
Eric Tunney was the epitome of grace and elegance – not just in appearance but also in nature.
He had style, yet he was one of the most unassuming people I ever met. He was warm and compassionate, modest and charming. He never made anyone feel out of place. Just the opposite in fact. He invited you into his company, no matter who you might be, and you were proud to be let in. You immediately recognized that you were in the presence of a man who’s sensibilities pre-dated his age, a man who was, quite simply, timeless in that most perfect sense.
The Cary Grant of comedy.
I have many wonderful memories of Eric.
Nights at the Cameron House in Toronto when he sang “the Frog Song” with his childhood pal Gordie and Big Sugar. God, we were all so cool and young and hip back then we could barely stand it.
Then there was the time he did a gig with me at a restaurant in Mississauga and my parents showed up. I was mortified. It was a horrible venue. The room was badly lit, the crowd was drunk, and the stage was hidden by a fireplace set in the centre of the room.
It was the first and only time my family ever saw me perform live and they were not impressed. But Eric told them I was a wonderful comic and that they should come and see me in a proper club. I was not appreciated in a room like this, he explained to them, I was too good for it.
Even as I write this, I can hear his voice in my mind. Hear his distinctive delivery and intonation. I find it impossible to imagine that he is gone. It is all so very, very wrong. I honestly can’t process it.
In most ways Eric and I were opposites. But we did share a love of language. To say he was a wordsmith is a serious understatement.
And although he was the embodiment of gentle sophistication, he had a very sharp eye. He noticed things about people…or more aptly put, he took the time to notice things.
His comedy was crafted through careful empathetic observation. He was a verbal artist. He painted images with words. He told stories. He was never cruel. He was forgiving of human faults because he could see the humour in them.
He rolled happily along on the top of the world, and those of us who knew and worked with him had every reason to believe it would always be so.
But nothing beautiful lasts.
The last time I saw Eric was at his wedding to Ellen. The entire Canadian comedy community had turned out, and it was a lovely affair – just as one would expect it to be.
Eric and Ellen were both deeply in love. They were both beautiful, exceedingly talented, and full of expectation and excitement. They were due to head off to LA soon afterwards, to what we all imagined would be a happy, successful future life together. Headed for fame and fortune. Again, no one had any doubts.
But tragically L.A. was not kind to my wonderful friend. The industry did not know what to do with his elegance and style. He had some success, but nothing lasting panned out. Hollywood missed the genius in its midst. To this day, I don’t know how. But from what I have since heard – only a few months ago in fact – Eric came home to Canada a shadow of his former self.
His marriage to Ellen had tragically broken down. She had remained behind in L.A, and Eric, feeling lost and alone, had slipped into a deep depression. To numb his pain and frustration he began to drink heavily.
Its hard to deal with depression at the best of times, much less when your livelihood depends on you being funny. Eric was already questioning his own talent and ability as a performer. Now he wasn’t getting many gigs either. His self-esteem hit rock bottom, and his drinking escalated. No one could reach him. No one could ease his suffering.
I was living in Ireland by this time, stupidly unaware of his agony, but I have since seen photos of him from that time. He is a grey ghost of the man he once was. He had aged far beyond his years. Even his smile looked fragile and forced. It was shocking. Broke my heart.
I can’t imagine him like that. I can’t imagine how his perfect world had turned so dramatically upside down. And I can’t imagine how it was that he was alone when the end found him. He, who was so kind. So talented. So beloved.
There were misleading rumors within the Canadian comedy community that Eric had taken his own life. But like most of the shit that gets passed around that insular little circle, that is not true.
Eric fell and hit his head. He was knocked unconscious, and devastatingly, bled out from his head wound before he was found. It was a horrible, agonising tragedy.
It was a cruel fate.
A fate this wonderful and talented man was undeserving of.
He deserved that perfect, charmed life he aspired to. He truly did.
He was robbed.
- This post originally published on LiveJournal in June of 2010