I first met Fred Rochlin when I was sent to interview him a week before the 1999 staging of his autobiographical one-man show, Old Man in a Baseball Cap. The monologue was adapted from his “military memoir” about serving as a U.S. Army Air Corps navigator. I fired questions at the skinny, 75-year-old retired architect-turned-performance-artist as we sat in the glassed-in living room of the Westwood high-rise he shared with his wife. Afterward, Rochlin clicked off my tape recorder, poured us two of his stiff, homemade chili-flavored vodkas over ice and began firing deep, searching questions back at me.
“So, what’s your philosophy of life?” he asked.
“Uh . . . ”
“Come on!” he wailed gleefully, in his signature nasal squeal. “We‘ve got all night to fill.”
We talked for hours, and I learned that Rochlin loved good tequila, ate Mexican food daily, and liked talking about sex. He told colorful stories about his adventures abroad during World War II and of growing up among a small enclave of Jewish families in Nogales, a tiny desert town on the Arizona-Mexico border. And he cursed a lot. But Rochlin, I discovered, also spoke three languages, carved hand-stitched journals from Brazilian wood, painted watercolors and wrote poetry. I felt as if I might fall in love with this generous and dynamic eccentric, who craved hot weather, thunderstorms and mariachi music, who rattled off memorable “Rochlin-isms” (“If you see a policeman, turn right!”), who collected business cards, covered his balding head with nutty logoed caps and whose clothing item of choice was stained khakis. We embarked on a close and unexpected friendship that night.
Rochlin, 78, died last Saturday, June 22, from complications of hairy-cell leukemia, a rare form of the disease. But not before first turning his room at St. John’s Health Center into an art studio. “It‘s really quite nice,” he told his daughter Margy. He was determined to see the bright side in being bedridden.
The architect enjoyed a successful 35-year-long career. His firm, Rochlin, Baran & Balbona, designed several recognizable health-care complexes around L.A. (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, City of Hope and Kaiser in West Los Angeles among them). Then at 69, with no acting experience whatsoever, Rochlin attended a seminar led by monologist Spalding Gray and began telling his funny and horrific war stories — memories which, for decades, had plagued him. The resulting Old Man in a Baseball Cap, published by HarperCollins, became a book-of-the-month-club selection, and Rochlin was selected as one of four — out of 200 — to perform his staged version at the Flying Solo Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. Rochlin went on to tour the country, performing his one-hour monologue to critical acclaim. Hollywood took note: Disney optioned Old Man for feature-length film development, and Rochlin liked to remind friends that they had been considering Leonardo DiCaprio to play his younger self. The last time I saw him onstage, in a sold-out show at the Mark Taper Forum two years ago, he received a teary-eyed and fierce standing ovation. He inspired budding artists of all ages.
Despite his illness, Rochlin’s creative energy did not let up. Up until two weeks ago, he painted and cranked out brief, autobiographical vignettes — one a day. And he continued collecting what he loved most: people. It seemed everyone in L.A. knew Rochlin — any given person was just one or two degrees removed. He was the Yiddish, senior-citizen version of Kevin Bacon. He‘d probe each new, cherished acquaintance with his characteristic questions: “How old do you feel inside? What does God mean?” He was insatiably curious, and as much as he loved telling stories, he liked extracting them from others.
“Every person goes through their own personal war, their struggle in life,” Rochlin told me that lucky afternoon we met. “In Spanish, it’s called la gran lucha, the big fight.”
In the introduction to his book, he urged: “Don‘t piss it away. Tell your story. Tell your story.”
Perhaps this was his philosophy of life.
Fred Rochlin is survived by daughters Judy, Davida and Margy and son Michael, three grandchildren and his wife, Harriet, a novelist — each of whom has stories to tell.
Contributions in Rochlin’s honor can be made to: Fred Rochlin Memorial Scholarship for Graduates of Nogales High School, CCF (California Community Foundation), 445 S. Figueroa St., Suite 3400, Los Angeles, CA 90071.