A few years ago I was in Seattle, preparing to film the first round of
After the Catch. For those of you unfamiliar with the program,
Anyway, on that first day of shooting, I arrived a few hours before filming began, and observed the kind of chaos that one can only find
around a TV production. We were going to be shooting in a style called
“Live to Tape,” which means we’d record the show in real time, as
though it were a live production, but edit later for content. (Can you
imagine filming the Captains with no time delay?) Consequently, there
were at least 7 cameras positioned around the big table, and all kinds
of lights hanging from the ceiling and poking through the windows. The
plan was to record two shows in one afternoon. Producers and directors
and cameramen and all manner of production personnel were milling
about, and there was a real sense that no one actually knew what the
hell was going on. Which was indeed the case.
As the Captains took their places around the table, it was clear they were not entirely sure what to expect. I can’t say they were
nervous, but I can assure you that ambiguity does not sit well with men
who are accustomed to being in charge. This kind of filming is the
opposite of what goes on aboard their boats, and they had lots of
questions about how the day would unfold. Unfortunately, I had no
answers for them. (Unlike Captains, I actually prefer confusion and
ambiguity – especially in television – and I told them as much. I also
suggested that, being in a bar, there were any number of remedies
nearby capable of taking the edge off – a completely unnecessary piece
of advice, given my audience and setting.)
The only one who appeared completely at ease was Phil. He arrived at the last minute, and did so in style – cruising into the parking lot
aboard a brand new motorcycle. He walked into the bar with a big smile,
said hello to the gang, and then glanced at me with an amused
expression. We then had the following exchange.
Me: Hey Phil, how’s it going?
Phil: Mike, I got nothing to say to you until you ride my bike.
Me: Beg your pardon?
Phil: I said that you and I have nothing to talk about until you ride my bike. Got it?
With that, Phil walked me out to his bike, tossed me his keys, crossed his arms, and waited for me to ride off. And so I did. Really,
I didn’t have much of a choice.
That was Phil Harris. He had a unique kind of generosity – the kind that
sprung from a genuine enthusiasm for whatever it was he chose to focus
on. It could be anything. Sometimes he focused on catching crab.
Sometimes he focused on his boys, Josh and Jake. In that particular
moment, he was focused on the joy of riding his new motorcycle, and he
wanted to share that joy with me. He insisted upon it. That’s an
unusual quality I think, and a very good one.
Not long after his embolism, I ran into Phil in Las Vegas. I was giving a speech at The ConAgra Convention, and he was doing a series of
appearances for a pulley company that had set up a large booth in the
exhibit area. During a break, I wandered over to watch Phil talk to his
fans. There were many. They had lined up to wait for an autograph and a
handshake from the now famous skipper, and the line was growing at an
I stood behind a nearby display, unobserved, and watched Phil carefully as he interacted with his fans. Some people are better at
this sort of thing than others, and Phil was very good indeed. He
handled his notoriety in a completely genuine way – as though he’d
always had it. He focused on every single person who waited to meet
him, and found something original to say at every turn. He answered
questions that were way too personal, and stayed well beyond his
required time, waiting until the last person in line shook his hand, an
older guy who told Phil how pleased he was for the chance to meet a
genuine American hero. Phil blushed, signed the guys hat, and thanked
him for waiting to say hello.
I have many memories of Phil. I wish I had more. One of my favorites was a night in LA (I think it was LA – it might have been NY. Forgive
me, they all blend together now.) Regardless, it was a
Discovery-sponsored event that included a bunch of their talent. Most
of the Captains were there, along with me, The Mythbusters, Bear
Grylls…the usual suspects. Also in attendance was David Zaslav.
David Zaslav is the CEO of Discovery Communications. He is The Big Cheese. The Head Honcho. The Top Dog. He is responsible for overseeing
a dozen separate channels, and runs the leading provider of non-fiction
entertainment on the face of the earth. He has become legendary, not
only for what he’s accomplished in business, but also for having an
attention span that rivals the life of a fruit fly. It’s true. David
calls meetings that are sometimes adjourned a minute after they begin.
He is very smart, and not terribly patient with those who can’t keep
up. He does not sit still – ever. He is always moving. And he is
constantly surrounded by people who are charged with keeping away those
who might suck up his valuable time with mindless chatter.
Anyway, I was there the night David Zaslav met Phil Harris. David came hurtling through the room at the speed of sound, shaking hands and
spreading sunshine. His retinue followed like the tail of a comet, and
he was on his way back out the door when Phil walked in. I can swear
that what I’m about to tell you is the honest truth. David and Phil
shook hands, and began to chat.
Thirty seconds later, they were still talking.
A minute later – still talking.
People began to stare. Five minutes later, they were still at it. Phil was mostly listening, but David was talking intensely – and people began to speculate about what a crab boat captain and a
media mogul could possibly have in common. Then, to the amazement of
those who witnessed it, David and Phil wandered off to a quiet corner
away from everyone else. There, they sat, and continued to talk!
This was simply unprecedented. Every few minutes, someone would slide over to extract David from this most unusual confab, but every
time David would wave them away. When Phil threatened to light up
indoors, David led him outside, where they remained for over an hour.
Standing there. Talking. Just the two of them.
Eventually, David and Phil said their goodbyes, and Phil joined me at the bar. “Hey, you know who that was?”
“Tell me,” I said.
Phil threw back a poorly made duck fart and replied, “That was the president of the whole damn channel.”
I smiled. “Well actually, he’s the CEO of the whole damn network.”
“Is that right?” said Phil. “Well, whatever. He seems like a nice guy. Kind of chatty, but his heart’s in the right place.”
Extraordinary. In the history of time, no one has ever described David Zaslav as “chatty.”
I guess it comes down to this. The world is desperate for authenticity. In business and in real life. In work and play. We crave
it I think, because it’s in such short supply. Consequently, when we
see it, we’ll wait for it. We’ll watch it on TV. We’ll stand in line
for a chance to be near it. Fans, fishermen, CEO’s – we know
when we see it, even if we’re not looking for it. And Phil Harris had it in spades.
I didn’t know Phil well enough to properly eulogize him. However, I knew
him enough to like him, and more than enough to miss him. He was the
real deal. Flawed, human, decent, kind, and totally authentic.
And one hell of a Captain.