“A mute? You want me to put a mute on the radio?”
“Hear me out, will you please? Just listen for--”
“What is there to listen to, you moron. You’re out of your goddamn mind. He wants me to put a friggin’ mute on the radio.”
“Look, Lennie, listen to me. You were the first with the retards, weren’t you? You were the guy with the stutterers, no? The midgets? You can’t see midgets on the radio. You were the first with--”
“And now you want me to be the first with fifteen minutes of dead air? What are you nuts? The guy doesn’t talk. This is friggin’ radio, remember? Sound? How do you interview a guy that doesn’t talk?”
“You can start--”
“Wait let me see if I can figure it out. I can start the next big thing, the new vogue: SILENT friggin’ RADIO, right? I can see it now. ‘Lennie Slotnik: FCC Bad Boy’s New Blow for Freedom of Speech. Silence.’”
“There is some question about whether or not he really can speak or not, you know. Maybe he really isn’t a mute. And if anyone can get him to speak, it would be Lennie Slotnik.. Think about the headlines. Mandelbaum Speaks. Slotnik’s Miracle.”
“Like one of them guys laying on the hands: ‘I can walk–it’s a miracle–I can walk.”
“Like getting one of those guys in the street to move.”
“What are yo talking about, guy in the street, it would be like getting one of those guards at that English palace to break up in hysterics. Like.. . . what the hell am I talking about. You’re making me nuts. The guy doesn’t talk. This is radio and the guy doesn’t talk.”
And that ended the first meeting where Slotnik’s producer, Larry Bellomatti pitched a guest shot for Mandelbaum the mute actor whose breakout performance in “Weekend at Bernies” was the rage of the moment.
A week later, when the news about Mandelbaum starring in a remake of “Gone With the Wind” was all over Entertainment Tonight, Slotnik was, if not quite convinced, at least willing to talk about it.
“This Mandelbaum guy, he talks? Yes or no.”
“I heard from a guy on the set at “Bernies” that he can talk if he wants to. The no talking, it’s just a publicity stunt. This guy tells me that in his trailer--”
“And this is a guy knows what he’s talking about? He’s not blowing smoke?”
“I know him for years. He’s not gonna smoke me. If he says it, it’s gold.”
“And if it’s not?”
“It’s not not. It is.”
“And if it’s not, I’m stuck with fifteen minutes of talking to myself.”
“You’ll think of something. You always do.”
“Right, it’d be nice if somebody else did some thinking around here once in awhile. Why am I surrounded with–. Let me give it some more thought. Meanwhile see if you can get me that one legged stripper from Miami.”
The morning after Mandelbaum appeared on Letterman, Slotnik was sold.
“Get Mandelbaum,” he told Bellomatti.
“What we need is somebody to talk for him, just in case. I mean Letterman is television.”
“You have to tell me that Letterman is television? I don’t know that Letterman is television. Give me a little credit for some brains. You think I’m Lenny Slotnik because I don’t know that Letterman is television.”
“I was only saying--”
“Who cares what you were only saying. I’m saying we got to have a back up just in case.
“That’s what I was saying.”
“Who gives a shit what you were saying. I’m telling you what we got to have. We’ll get his people to send someone over with him. Like a--”
“Translator. I’ll ask Mandelbaum. If Mandelbaum doesn’t speak. The translator will tell us what he’s saying.”
“Lennie, baby, if anybody can get him to talk, it’s Lennie Slotnik.”
“You have to tell me it’s Lennie Slotnik? Slotnik will get him to talk. . .but just in case.”
And so it was that at six thirty on the morning of January 18, Mandelbaum found himself sitting in the green room of The Lennie Slotnik Show with an intern from studio publicity and his agent’s brother listening intently to production instructions from Larry Bellomatti and nodding his head, perhaps in agreement, perhaps in boredom. For fifteen minutes he had sat listening and nodding. Never once did he say a word.
“You understand,” Larry asked, raising his voice as though Mandelbaum might have trouble hearing.
“He understands,” said the intern.
“Why doesn’t he say it?’
“He understands,” said the agent’s brother.
“Can’t he tell me? Just to be sure.”
“He doesn’t speak,” said the intern.
“He never speaks,” said the agent’s brother. “That’s his shtick.”
“But he can speak? I mean if he wants to he can speak, right.”
“We never heard him at the studio,” said the intern.
“At the agency, he never opens his mouth unless,” the agent’s brother paused for dramatic effect, “it’s to shove in a hot dog. Hot dogs he loves.”
“So how do you know what he wants? He writes?”
“Not on the set.”
“He does that sign language?”
“Who knows sign language?”
“So how do you know?”
“You look at him, you know,” said the agent’s brother.
“That’s it,” said the intern, “you look at him and you know.”
Bellomatti looked at the stub of an actor mashed into a ratty old easy chair. Deep into his eyes, he looked. Lennie’s going to kill me, he thought. Lennie’s going to have a fit.
Lennie will be fine, don’t worry. It was Mandelbaum. He didn’t say it so anyone could hear it, but it was almost like Bellomatti could read his mind. Mandelbaum never said a word, but Bellomatti understood.
“Everything’s ready?” Slotnik asked at the commercial break.
“I explained. He knows.”
“He told you he knows?”
“He didn’t exactly tell me, but he told me.”
“Larry, he told you he knows.”
“It will be alright. He said it will be alright.”
“He didn’t exactly say. But he told me.”
“What the hell are you giving me? He said, but he didn’t say. He told me but he didn’t tell me. Stop with the games, already. This is my ass on the line. This better work out, or. . . .”
The station switchboard began to light up the second Mandelbaum left the studio, and the calls kept coming in until late in the afternoon. There were more the next day. And more the day after that. Mandelbaum had never said a work, yet millions of listeners had heard every word he didn’t say. The called to say how thrilled they were. They called to congratulate. They called to praise. But most of all they called to make sure that Lennie would get Mandelbaum back for another interview.
“See,” Slotnik crowed at the next production meeting, “why can’t any of you come up with something like that! Why do I have to do everything! Why do. . . .”