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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- July 17, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 3
Reruns Will Keep Sitcom Writer Dick Clair on Ice—indefinitely
An Emmy-winning TV comedy writer and co-creator of such major-league sitcoms as Mama's Family, It's a Living and The Facts of Life, Clair was 57 when he succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. He was absolutely determined not to let the grim reaper have the last laugh. "I've always thought death is a bummer," he told an interviewer in 1987. "I remember when my father died I had a fantasy about popping him in the freezer, like an ear of corn. But I let that go."
The idea, however, just wouldn't die. Clair became an active member of a Riverside, Calif., group called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which describes itself as "the world's largest and most capable provider of cryonic suspension services." As a cryonicist, Clair believed that if his body were stored at extremely low temperatures, he might someday be thawed out, cured, revived and returned to the world of comedy. Skeptics point out that though future medical technology may indeed be able to cure now-incurable diseases, healing dead people will remain considerably more difficult.
Such talk does not discourage the folks at Alcor. Bringing a frozen body back to life "is a pretty tall order," admits Alcor's director of research, Mike Darwin, "but I think we've got a real good shot at doing it. At least it's better than the alternative, which is no shot at all." Not everyone can see the point, but then Alcor takes its name from a faint star in the Big Dipper that only those with keen vision can spot.
Clair was so enthusiastic about promoting Alcor's program that he made the foundation the sole beneficiary of his will. His estate consisted of current assets of about $1 million, more than enough to cover the $100,000 fee for keeping his body frozen indefinitely. (Those willing to rest in piece can have a head-only "neurosuspension" at the cut rate of $35,000.) And death did not seriously impair Clair's ability to make a living. Hit sitcoms never pass away; they go into syndication, and the residuals from Clair's work may eventually total as much as $20 million. His estate earns $800,000 a year from reruns of The Facts of Life alone.
A lot of cash was at stake, then, when Clair suddenly signed a new will reducing his legacy to Alcor by nearly half just 56 hours before he died—or "went down," as cryonicists prefer to put it. The new will dropped Alcor board member Saul Kent as executor, replacing him with Jenna McMahon, 52, Clair's comedy-writing partner for the last 27 years of his life. While still leaving all his current assets to Alcor, the new will directed only half of Clair's residuals to the foundation, dividing the rest in equal parts among his surviving sister and 10 nieces and nephews. McMahon says that in his final days, Clair suddenly realized that some of his relatives were not well off and that he ought to help them.
Alcor contested the revisions, arguing that Clair was mentally incompetent. Suffering from a brain infection, he had been subject to bouts of delirium. "His condition was very poor for months," says Alcor's Darwin. "He was totally disoriented as to place, time and details. I reassured him that I didn't think it was a write-off as far as his cryonic suspension was concerned; I think it's the kind of thing that future technology will be able to lick. He'll suffer some deficits in terms of memory and so on, but I think he'll be able to be returned to a fully functioning human being." While conceding that Clair may not be quite his old self when he gets back on his feet, Darwin insists he'll be a whole lot better off mentally than he was when he signed the new will.
Alcor cited medical records describing Clair as "semicomatose," "disoriented" and "confused." But Clair's family presented 12 witnesses to the signing who said Clair was competent. Both sides agree that he was suffering hallucinations. "He said there were balloons coming off the wall, but he knew he was hallucinating and that there really were no balloons there," points out McMahon's attorney, Ronald Palmieri. "It was like a '60s acid trip."
"That just shows how incompetent he was," says David Epstein, Alcor's lawyer. "Would you let a person on an acid trip sign a complicated legal document?" Yet late last month, after six months of pretrial proceedings, Alcor pulled the plug on its suit and settled, agreeing to pay both sides' legal costs, which may come to $400,000, and accepting the terms of the second will. The cryonicists had concluded they didn't have a chance in court. "I think there was an anti-cryonics bias," says Darwin.
"If my client had not been Alcor, if it had been an acceptable group," says Epstein, "this case would have been a walk." The settlement, he says, "seems so reasonable, but it's not what Dick wanted." Displaced executor Kent agrees. His successor, McMahon, he says disdainfully, has "probably never come closer to cryonics than defrosting lima beans." McMahon, though no fan of Alcor, is nonetheless relieved that the group will take care of Clair. "I told him that if there was any problem with Alcor, I'd freeze him myself. That was all he really wanted out of life."
Moments after Clair died, Alcor technicians went to work. They put his body on a resuscitator to keep oxygen flowing to the tissues, and then packed it in crushed ice. His blood was drained and replaced with a "cryoprotectant," described by Darwin as "similar to what's in an automobile's radiator." Finally, the corpse was wrapped in plastic, zipped into a sleeping bag and put to rest in a 9-foot-high metal canister, not unlike a giant Thermos bottle. Liquid nitrogen was slowly sprayed in, chilling the body to a final temperature of-320°F.
The San Francisco-born Clair, whose real name was Richard Clair Jones—he shortened it for the stage—was a struggling actor when he met McMahon at a Los Angeles theater in 1961. The two hit it off, and soon formed a comedy act, with Clair playing foil to McMahon's ditzy blond. They started out in nightclubs, working up to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and Merv Griffin. But their real talent was writing. They shared three Emmys, and, after six years with The Carol Burnett Show, wrote a string of hit sitcoms on their own.
Despite his success, there was always a distracted, uneasy quality about Clair. His sister, Claire Martin, a New Jersey librarian and children's-book author, once described him as "a very unique person, like a visitor from another planet trying to figure things out here." Clair talked about cryonics constantly. "To me," he once told an interviewer, "[it's] a way to stay alive, like taking aspirin or vitamins." After signing on with Alcor, McMahon says, he developed an intense fear of flying. "He was so worried that his body would get destroyed and there'd be nothing to freeze." He obsessively saved "every scrap of paper, letters from grade school, drawings, even copies of letters he wrote to his parents and friends." Clair filled the garage, two bedrooms and the dining room of his Toluca Lake home with boxes, filing cabinets and shelves loaded with his papers—journals, notebooks, napkins, clippings and boxes of audiotapes. "His whole life is in those boxes," says McMahon, who says Clair left instructions for Alcor to microfilm every document. "He planned to use them to help reconstruct who he was after he woke up from being frozen."
According to Clair's fellow cryonicists, he is not dead. He is merely "deanimated." The theory of cryonics can be summed up simply: "Freeze, wait, reanimate," says Alcor member H. Keith Hensen. Clair is the 13th suspension at Alcor—there are eight other humans, three dogs and a cat. The animals, including Darwin's pooch Mitzi, are the pets of Alcor members and are to be revived with them.
Alcor's treatment is so highly experimental, it's probably just as well that all of its "patients" start off dead. Darwin, who claims no expertise beyond his training as a dialysis technician, traces his interest in cryonics back to a junior high school science project: He chilled turtles to just above freezing and then warmed them back up without apparent harm. Alcor teams have perfected that basic technique on research animals. One object of their attention, a dog named Dixie, can be seen at Alcor's headquarters. She is deaf and a little wobbly after having been held at 39°F for four hours and 40 minutes.
Though the prospects for reanimation seem to offer cold comfort for would-be immortals, Clair chose to take his chances. And really, what chance did he take? But, sadly, those who knew him say death scored its real victory over Clair while he was still very much alive. "His sister asked me if he was ever really happy. I honestly don't know," says McMahon. "He was always so worried about the future, about living forever."
At last, one way or another, Dick Clair's worries are over.
—James S. Kunen, Marie Moneysmith in Los Angeles
September 24, 2016
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