“Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

— William Shakespeare

I was in the garden today. It was late afternoon. Jack was prowling in the bushes; I was picking up the branches taken down by an afternoon of rogue wind. My cellphone rang; it was my Hollywood daughter, the one who became an actor’s agent, the one who knows what everyone in Hollywood is doing at any time of night, who’s married, divorced, fooling around. Who’s living, who’s dead.

“Daddy,” she said. “Jack Riley is dead.”

Once upon a time, August I think, an August like this but hotter, smoggier, I was sitting at a long table in a rehearsal room in Studio 17, CBS Studio Center, 4024 Radford Ave., Studio City, Los Angeles, California. I had been cast in an episode of the “Bob Newhart Show,” and I still couldn’t believe it. It was 1977. By this time I was somewhat of a veteran, but not a star. I was the king of small parts. I was Jimmy Devine, who had appeared on “The FBI,” “The Fugitive,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” and assorted movies of the week, all dramas. Nights, I did standup gigs in comedy clubs. I wanted to be funny, not dramatic.

I had a friend who wanted to be a serious actor, but he was good at comedy, and now he was luckily embedded in the cast of “The Bob Newhart Show.”

We both made better money making commercials and voice-over spots: soaps, toilet paper, salad oil, airlines. I had White Cloud toilet paper; he had a margarine spot with only his voice. Mine made me comfortable; his damn near made him rich.

He was Jack Riley, and he died today.

People thought we looked alike in that Irish kind of way, with the same black hair, a way of walking, the same sardonic, darkly edged sense of humor, with a weird similarity in voice and delivery, so we were both constantly sent up for the same spots. That’s how we became friends, and that’s how, when this unusual script called for someone to play his double, he knew he had his man.

Long before, Jack had taken me to his barber, who cut our thick black hair the same way. The secret was, and still is until you read this, that Jack’s real hair was white. He was cursed with premature gray, very gray, hair that became white.

Jack was a kind, gentle man. Everyone loved Jack Riley — everyone on the show and among his pals, all comic actors. He led a quiet life, and after he created the part of Eliot Carlin, the egotistical, obsessive compulsive, sardonic wit on the Newhart show, he settled into an even a quieter life. Jack Riley was a funny man. Jack Riley was a lovable man. Jack Riley was everyone’s friend. Jack Riley died today.

The Newhart show wasn’t, as he put it, his first rodeo. He already had a rich career, with dozens of movies and comedy series, including four or five movies with Mel Brooks, who loved Jack, even though Mel once slapped him across the face for some mistake.

I don’t know how it happened, but we were sitting around at lunch one day and someone mentioned Brooks and Jack said, “Yeah, he slapped me once,” and went back to eating his salad. He never brought it up again.

The great director Robert Altman cast Jack as a saloon piano player in his 1973 “The Long Goodbye.” Jack didn’t play the piano, but he made it look good. Altman cast him again in his great “McCabe & Mrs Miller.” But in almost every part he played, he was Elliot Carlin and Elliot Carlin was Jack Riley, and Jack Riley died today.

So there we were, sitting at that long table in a rehearsal room in Studio 17, CBS Studio Center 4024 Radford Ave., Studio City, Los Angeles, he at one end, and I at the other.

I had other friends sitting there as well, people I had known on the “outside”: Suzanne Pleshette, an old buddy who called me “Nutzy” and said, “Jack wishes he looked like you.” Suzanne is gone as well.

There was John Fielder, who played Mr. Peterson. John was a well-known Broadway actor and had appeared in “Raisin in the Sun,” and “Twelve Angry Men” with Henry Fonda. People forget that. John died in 2005

There sat Marcia Wallace, who played the cantankerous receptionist Carol Kester. Marcia is gone as well. Florida Friebus, the sweet, wonderful Florida, died in 1988.

In that particular segment, only Howard Hesseman, writer/actor, and Bob himself are still with us. I can see that room now, sunlight floating through dirty windows, a table full of paper coffee cups, scripts and pens, laughing actors applauding one another.

Now, for some reason, I’m thousands of miles and years away, picking up sticks in my garden, with Jack my dog, who is named after my friend, and talking to my daughter in Hollywood who just called to say, “Daddy, Jack Riley is dead.”

Editor’s note: Actor Jack Riley died Aug. 19 at the age of 80.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. His book, “Will Write for Food,” is a collection of his Morning Sentinel columns.

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