The Best Thing My Trump Impression Got Me

This year has been a terrible year for the world and so many people. But for awhile it seemed that I would be one of the few people along with Jeff Bezos to have a career year. Once my Trump impression took off in March I began gaining fans by the ten thousands and getting a lot of money from digital platforms like YouTube and Cameo.  There were frustrations, expected and inexplicable alike, but by almost any possible measurement my year was going great, let alone graded on the curve of a global pandemic.

By late May I had not seen my family in Riverdale (Bronx, NY) since early March and my Uncle John’s 71st birthday was coming up. I grew up with my uncle as my neighbor.  From 1986 to 2020 my uncle lived directly across the hall from my family (which for the last few years was just my mom, his sister) so needless to say he played an outsized role in my life compared to the typical uncle.  He was also a tough person to buy gifts for sometime.  And despite my unexpected positive economic numbers I had no idea what to get my uncle with my new money during a pandemic. And then I had an idea.

During my rise to Twitter infamy several celebrities that I am a big fan of began commenting, retweeting and following me. Pop stars, Emmy winning actors, legendary actresses and many other people of that ilk were in my mentions frequently. But one new fan stuck out in my mind as it related to my uncle: Bob Gunton.

For those of you who do not know who Bob Gunton is by name, when I say The Warden from The Shawshank Redemption, there should be no other questions.  In one of the most popular and acclaimed films of my lifetime his performance stands equal to (and for some, like my uncle, surpasses) the great work of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in that film.  He has been in many, many films and TV shows, but the iconic and defining performance of his career is Warden Norton.  And for my uncle, a lover of movies generally and Shawshank specifically, Gunton’s performance was an all timer. Anytime it was on TNT (44.7 million airings and counting) he would say “Why didn’t Gunton get nominated?”  But it went beyond that. My uncle, armed with Google and a computer in the 200os became a Google/Wikipedia expert on anything or anyone that piqued his interest. Gunton’s life story of being a lifelong Catholic that attended seminary and receiving a Bronze Star in Vietnam were some of the Wiki details that my uncle shared with me about Gunton.  Almost as if their shared faith and an impressive service record further validated my uncle’s appreciation of his acting work.

So in late May, after receiving multiple complimentary tweets from Mr. Gunton I decided to write to him to ask a favor.  I relayed my uncle’s appreciation of Mr. Gunton’s work and asked if he would be willing to send him a signed headshot. The answer was an immediate yes and it was placed in the mail the next day.  The headshot arrived on my Uncle’s birthday and was opened separate from my card so the surprise was total to say the least.  When you know someone long enough you know when they really appreciate something.  My uncle’s response was akin to the janitor clapping at the end of Rudy or Mr. Miyagi’s smiling nod to Daniel at the end of The Karate Kid.  Not hugely vocal, but undeniably pleased.  I knew because the next day we had a chat where he basically described the headshot in greater detail.

My uncle had always wanted me to focus on my legal career and I think comedy always seemed like a fool’s errand to him (and for most of my 30s it felt that way to me as well).  But the Bob Gunton headshot was an unintended flex of how my talents had finally reached a broader and impactful (to us at least) audience.  I genuinely cannot remember ever getting him a present that seemed to make him happier and it would not have happened if my impression had not blown up during Covid. So, at the risk of sounding hokey, it is clear that the money and increased attention and opportunities have to be considered secondary to being able to get the headshot for my uncle.  A month later he told me that he had framed it in a nice frame. It said “Hey Uncle John, Happy Birthday! From The Warden (signed Bob Gunton)”

On August 12th I got a phone call while I was sitting at my desk wearing a ball gag around my neck, which is how so many bad stories begin. I had just finished recording a video doing my impression of Mike Pence (hence the ball gag prop) when the phone rang. I picked up and it was my uncle. He had been waiting for medical news and the news was not good.  A few weeks earlier he had to get bone marrow tests because his white blood cell count was skyrocketing. His doctors believed it was chronic leukemia, but as I sat in my desk chair my uncle delivered the bad news to me: it was acute.  Instead of being able to just get oral medication he would have to start a chemotherapy regimen soon. Because the leukemia seemed to have changed from chronic to acute it appeared that it was aggressive.  I had planned on going to visit my uncle and my mom at the end of August, which was a week away, after not seeing either of them in person since early March, but now that would be delayed with his chemo. He would require a 5 day stay in the hospital monthly until his levels got back to acceptable. Unfortunately some other health issues emerged before he was set to go to the hospital so he had to go early.  When speaking to my mom she had told me that my uncle thought about bringing the Gunton headshot to the hospital.  We laughed about it and he did not bring it with him.

From there I would only have a few more conversations with my uncle.  A series of health issues emerged, but the chemotherapy seemed to strike a knock out blow instead of helping. It was a very rapid and unexpected decline and about 2 weeks after first going to the hospital he passed away.  We did not get to say goodbye as he was sedated for almost 2 weeks.  As we talked after, piecing it together it seems like my uncle knew his health was in trouble for a lot longer than he let us know.  He had purchased a lot of new things in the last year and it makes me think that it was a form of retail therapy and/or an attempt at optimism.  But I thought of the headshot as well. We laughed that he might want to bring it to the hospital, but as I think about it maybe he wanted it because it was a really bright light in an otherwise dark year. A year that denied him peace of mind for his health and usual contact with his loved ones. It is tough enough to go through Covid more isolated, but if you know that your health might be failing it can only exponentially increase a hopeless feeling.  And I think the headshot was something that meant so much to him and was so cool to him because it was a gift and connection he never expected in a year of bad news and diminished connections.

So it has been a tough year for so many in so many ways and my family is no exception. But I want to say thank you so much to Mr. Bob Gunton. Your work gave us decades of enjoyment and your kind and generous gesture touched my Uncle in a time when I did not know quite how much he needed it.  So for my Uncle I put my trust in the Lord, but your headshot belongs to me.

16 COMMENTS
  • steveax
    Reply

    J-L, my condolences on the loss of your uncle. I am sorry he passed in such a way. It great that he was able to enjoy the headshot and awesome that you could do that for him.

    5 weeks ago my sister, my only sibling, was also diagnosed with Leukemia… completely unexpected diagnosis. Like your uncle this caused many other issues… pneumonia, kidney failure, etc.

    In the last 5 weeks she has been at City of Hope Cancer Center. She has been in and out of ICU twice, been on a ventilator for 2 days, had dialysis almost daily, had fluid drained from her lungs at least 6 times and one round of extensive chemotherapy…. She was always healthy… little ailments that we now see were the start of it… she has been isolated from everyone because of Covid-19 and I can only see her by Facetime… The last week has brought slight improvement as we wait for the next bone marrow test later this week to see how she responded to the Chemo.

    Reading your post really made an impression on me and I hope your family can celebrate your uncle’s life and remember how important that headshot was to him.
    Steve

  • Sandy
    Reply

    Beautiful story! May he Rest In Peace.

  • Cookie Hood
    Reply

    Wow, that was both an amazing and moving story. I have discovered and enjoyed you all these months. You have brought some laughter to me in these troubling times. You are talented, smart, and good looking. What you did for your Uncle was exceptional. Hope to keep seeing you even after the idiot is voted out! Keep bringing joy to the world ?!!

  • Maida Hattabaugh
    Reply

    Sad and beautiful story. Sorry in the year of your greatest success that you had to meet with such a tragedy in one so relatively young. I sent my mother to live with my sister (she was living with my family) because my wife is an RN and the risk is too great so I haven’t seen her for months. She is 87 and so is my father (they are divorced). I have been doing shopping for my father, since I had covid in March I am the only one in my household who has been seeing him so I count myself very lucky.
    I am happy that you got your Uncle such a sweet gift and thankful to Mr. Gunton for being so obliging.
    On a lighter note on the 25th anniversary of Star Trek and after Spock died in the movie a young fan walked up to Leonard Nimoy and said “I thought you were dead” Mr. Gunton’s death scene in Shawshank Redemption was so powerful you sometimes forget it isn’t real (though as an adult of course I know it wasn’t)
    finally, I got booted off twitter for using the terms Hillbilly and redneck. I can now only read posts. For the best I suppose.
    The name below was my twitter name (which I found out existed because someone had used my email address to create a twitter account, before that I had no twitter)
    Again, my condolence for your loss.

  • Katie
    Reply

    Wow, that’s a really lovely and cool story. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Moira
    Reply

    Uncle John probably appreciate the effort you made doing that for him as much as the head shot. Lovely memory for you to have and the smile it will give you thinking he might have liked to bring it to hospital with him. ?

  • Carlos Izquierdo
    Reply

    2020 just keeps delivering blows. Glad you were able to give your uncle this one last gift.

    I’m not at all spiritual, but I reserve a grain of spirituality to conflate this universal law of physics with the spiritual world : matter can never be destroyed or created. It merely changes shape.

  • Margaret King
    Reply

    Beautiful essay about love and generosity in the midst of so much darkness. I’m so sorry for your loss of your uncle.

    Thank you also for your Trump and Pence impressions. They are beyond superb. It’s great to have something to laugh about during such angst-filled days.

  • STEVEN PAILET
    Reply

    You are f**cking awesome, dude! Keep up your great work.

  • Ann Albin
    Reply

    I don’t know you personally of course, but I hope you will accept my condolences . Terrible loss during a terrible time.

  • David Preis
    Reply

    So sorry to hear about your uncle’s passing. I appreciate your blog posts, I learn from them. You have the ability to articulate things in such a way that compels me to improve myself. Really glad you’re career is taking off. I do what I can to share and help promote what you’re doing. My comments are usually under the name reverse fulfillment which as you know is the strategy of returning defective items back to the seller. Anyways hoping the best of 2021 will find us all

  • Nancy Wilson
    Reply

    Bob is truly a generous and kind-hearted person. We were friends 50+ years ago and have re-connected through facebook. My husband and I search out films he has been in and love to watch them. Love ya Bob!

  • John Lynch
    Reply

    Very touching…..
    Loss in this moment of time is extraordinary.
    Stayed home in PA as my wife spent nearly 3 weeks in Florida watching her father exist on a ventilator before he passed.
    May the ‘stories’ as we call them keep your uncle alive for years.
    Thank you for your talent it has definitely helped.

  • Mary Beth DiPaola
    Reply

    This is a beautiful story. I’m sorry you went through this and I hope your pain eases over the coming days,months, years but your memories of your uncle never fade. (ps -I love your work)

  • Bob Prentice
    Reply

    Like the Shawshank movie, this story is the kind that is retold, and never gets old. Your uncle’s “nod of appreciation” for your gift is a treasure in itself. Condolences to you and your family Mr. Cauvin.

  • Kaye Thistleton
    Reply

    Dear J-L, thank you for telling the story of Uncle John, which I knew from listening to your podcast Righteous Pk. So sorry for John and your family’s loss, what a thoughtful gift though. Having grown up in Australia, with a father who was a projectionist when that was actually a skilled position, I got to ‘go to the pictures’ with him every Saturday afternoon, instilling in me a huge love of film and perhaps a slightly skewed idea of the USA. It was the land of dreams, where everyone had a chance of making it big. Sorry, if you were white that was a possibility in those days, late 1950s. Interestingly, my sense of natural justice and fair play grew as I did, I was always on the side of the Native American in Westerns,especially the old serials, and couldn’t understand why, at Dad’s work, the local Aboriginal people had to sit downstairs. The word ‘segregation’ was unknown to me as a child, but I wondered at many of the lesser roles Black people were given in film.
    Fast forward to 2020. Pretty much the only way I have been able to cope with your election dramas, has been via your YouTube channels especially your behind the scenes Making Podcasts Great Again.My mental health has not been too good this year, whose has? But your MPGA have been one of the very few things to bring me joy.I had forgotten how to laugh out loud, 3 escapes from bushfires, covid and family estrangement will do that, but watching you and Jay delight in each other’s humour, has so kept me sane. Thank you for what you do, and for allowing us strangers a little glimpse into your life. You make me smile.
    God help you all tomorrow, I am with you in spirit, if these old knees would let me, I would be down on them praying for divine intervention.
    Stay well, stay safe, let the blue tsunami flush the rats out of the White House.
    Love and thanks from Australia.

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