MY FRIEND FRED
My friend Fred Wostbrock and I came from similar backgrounds; comfortable familial surroundings in cities that just didn’t understand us. We both longed to leave our implied destinies for greener pastures of palm trees, swimming pools, movie stars. For we had both fallen in love with the same seductive muse; television.
For me it was “Batman,” “The Monkees,” “The Munsters,” and just about any show with an animated star. For Fred it was about anything that had a toothy host, amped up contestants, and a buzzer. Fred was only six months older than me, so generationally we were both on the same pop culture page.
Fred made it to L.A. to start his career long before I did, as I took a slight detour to get married and have children first. But through our mutual friend Sir Adam West (please, could we bestow Knighthood on this guy already?) we met in 1992 and were fast friends from that day forward. I can remember the day Adam called my answering machine and told me to call his new agent Fred. The way Adam meticulously and slowly said “WOST-BROCK” still rings in my ears.
Becoming a talent agent for a specific type of performer was Fred’s unique niche in the entertainment industry. I chose a slightly wider path as a Voice Actor. Gameshow hosts, classic TV and film actors, and unique showbiz personalities were all signed to Fred’s roster of stars. He worked hard for them, and they respected his Herculean efforts to keep them working.
I quickly became accustomed to Fred’s quirky nature and numerous odd habits. Even his peculiar speaking style made everything sound like it was being announced on a mid-day gameshow. As my friends began to know him too, we all developed our own “Fred” impersonation. Always welcoming and hospitable, our group spent many a hot, sunny weekend afternoons around his pool telling tales of Hollywood hoo-ha and spinning yarns about obscure TV tidbits.
While sunning in his paradisal backyard and enjoying a number of Swisher Sweet cigars, it wasn’t uncommon to see Fred leap from his lounge chair when he spotted a hungry squirrel. While throwing a cacophony of bread and nuts into his grass he proclaimed, “This is like Thanksgiving to them!” Never a proponent of sunscreen, I once asked him if he was worried about cancer. He said with a smile, “I can’t be bothered.”
There were aspects of Fred’s life that were left to deep mystery; many of us were curious as he would disappear to random places with very little explanation. We figured he had some sort of double life as a spy or foreign operative; using his position as an agent as brilliant cover. Or maybe he had a shy girlfriend or mistress. But as Fred always used to proclaim, “My wife is gameshows, and my mistress is the sun!”
When we jokingly prodded him with curious questions about his activities he would simply say, “I’m staying home all night and organizing my comics from Alvin to Zorro.” Perhaps he just really enjoyed his alone time, or maybe this was simply one more quirky aspect of his unpredictable life. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who would sit at home every 4th of July with pails of water at the ready in case a wayward firework landed on his roof and started his house on fire.
It always seemed like Fred was keeping everyone at an arm’s length away for some unknown reason. I don’t believe many people really got to know him on a deep, bonding level. While we would talk about a wide range of things during our marathon late-night phone calls (we were both night owls) our conversations mainly skimmed 70’s music, ghosts and UFOs, great TV shows, our favorite actors, and very graphic opinions about women we knew.
The only glimpse I got into his highly private life and little-discussed upbringing was a story he told me once – and only once. As a youth he spent hours in front of the TV filling his brain with a database of information that he said his parents didn’t respect or understand. One Saturday night, Fred was perched in front of the tube diligently watching a gameshow. Before him, he had a binder full of information he kept about his favorite shows. In it, he would log which gameshow asked what questions, which contestants won what jackpot, and probably even had in-depth descriptions of what the gameshow host was wearing.
While Fred was scribbling notes in his gameshow log, he said his mother looked in on him with pity in her eyes. “Freddie,” she said, “don’t you have friends?” Fred innocently replied that the people on television were his friends; Wink Martindale, Bob Eubanks, Monty Hall, Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy. With absolute certainty in his voice he told her that someday he’d be working with all of those people and this was important work he was doing.
When his “Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows” book was published, I asked him if he sent his parents a copy to complete the circle and prove that his youthful prophecy had been fulfilled. He said he did, but they didn’t really “get it.” This hit me in the heart like a giant hammer of sadness. Having grown up with nothing ever less than fully supportive parents, I found their indifference puzzling, confusing and sad. Perhaps this gave me the lead I needed to deduce the reason for Fred’s emotional fortification. He eventually changed his last name from “Wostbrock” to “Westbrook.” He said it was easier for people to understand when talking to industry contacts on the phone. But I wondered if the name change was for deeper reasons known only to Fred.
Though he kept his heart guarded, the wall around it was no doubt colossal. You’d need an enormous wall to contain the gigantic heart he possessed. I know of friends to whom he lent large sums of money, but never asked for it back. When I would try to pay for Adam West’s autograph at a collector show, he’d take my money, pretend to put it in his pocket, and then give it right back to me on the sly. He wouldn’t take my money, but he appreciated my effort.
After having known him for almost 25 years, I should be in tears as I write this. But every time I feel a lump forming in my throat, it’s soon superseded by a developing tickle in my belly; which soon turns into a full blown belly laugh generated from ridiculous thing Fred had done or said during the course of our friendship.
Hearing the 1972 hit “Oh Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith was always a sure-fire way to put a smile on his face. He had a terrific memory for the music of his childhood. But for having a savant-like, encyclopedic memory for television shows, music and trivia, he had a pretty rotten memory for people’s names. He’d ask, “How’s that real pretty blonde girl you know?” Of course, that could be any number of girls I’m acquainted with, so I’d always ask him to be more specific. He always referred to my contractor and friend Terry Crisp as “Elvis.” Sure Terry was an Elvis impersonator, but I don’t think Fred ever remembered that his real name was Terry. Hanging with Fred was always a laugh a minute; which is why I was very puzzled by his actions in the last few years of his life.
Right around the fall of 2014 he stopped talking to me altogether. Almost completely incommunicado. I wracked my brain to try and figure out what I had said or done to offend him so. I sent him occasional e-mails about interesting people I had met or songs I heard. A brief, curt reply would come a few days later. Unsure of what I had done to create this conversational vacuum, I decided to just leave him be. Something I had done was obviously eating him, but Fred being Fred, he wasn’t able to have “that” conversation with me to put the issue to rest. He had his reasons for effecting radio silence, and none of my cordial overtures and efforts of outreach were having any effect.
In late 2015 I had heard through the grapevine that Fred had cancer, but that the information was on the down-low. Knowing his love for searing in the sun sans sunblock, I simply rationalized it by saying, “Bah. He’ll have it cut off and be just fine.” But in late September a close mutual friend had spilled the beans completely…he was very sick with lung cancer. When the call came in on November 4th that he had succumbed, it wasn’t completely unexpected.
With the cloud of “unfinished business” hanging over my head, I started second-guessing my earlier decision to simply leave him be. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.Perhaps I should have been more proactive in nailing him down about the reason for his reluctance to communicate. I had seen him at a convention a while back, and though he was cordial and polite, it wasn’t the same ol’ Fred. I had also seen him at Gary Owens’ memorial service in February of 2015 and he was somewhat pleasant and talkative. I wrote off any guardedness he displayed as the result of having just lost a good friend and client. But looking back armed with the information I now know, this would have been right around the time he got his diagnosis.
Shortly after Fred’s passing I discussed my situation with a few of our mutual friends. I asked them if they had any idea what I might have said to send Fred into hiding. I was shocked, but a bit heartened, when I learned that they too hadn’t been in contact with Fred in about a year. Even Wink Martindale, whom I had briefly encountered at an event in May, said he hadn’t heard from Fred in a long time. And I knew well that Fred considered Wink to be of godhood.
Apparently when Fred learned of his bleak diagnosis 18 months before his death, he chose to hold it in utmost secrecy in a very Bowie-like manner. Only a few chosen ones were informed, and they were sworn to absolute secrecy. This put a few of our mutual friends in a peculiar place. When I’d ask about Fred, they were unable to offer anything more than simple platitudes. This must’ve been particularly hard for them considering I’ve known Fred longer much longer than they.
I now know that Fred wasn’t holding any imagined grudge against me, but he simply didn’t want to have “that” conversation. To use his words, “he can’t be bothered.” But I’m still not convinced that his plan of secrecy was the best way to handle his situation.
Sitting at his memorial service on Friday November 11th, one week after his death, I could see the pain on others’ faces who weren’t included in that “secret circle,” and had no idea their friend was terminal. Stuffed into the backroom of the famous Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank (a regular haunt of Fred’s), were about 120 people. They included recent friends, clients, childhood friends, relatives, industry friends, more clients, co-workers, and even more clients.
Several of them stood up and took turns to offer their best Fred-isms; anecdotes that had everyone who knew him shaking their head in agreement – “Yup, that’s Fred.” Wink Martindale, Monty Hall, even Sir Adam West spoke eloquently. Most all of the speeches had a common thread; we had no idea!
But listening to legendary “Hollywood Squares” host Peter Marshall hit me the hardest. As Peter wound up his story, he said he wished he would have known about Fred’s illness so he could have spent more time with him; his voice cracking with emotion. Was this really the best way that Fred could have handled this? Did Fred’s indifference to all things emotional make him incapable of considering the emotional impact of those who loved him?
Unfortunately I had to leave the service early to get to a Voice-Over job. But on my way out I kept hearing Fred’s voice in my head imitating his mother, “Freddie, don’t you have friends?” I was saddened by the fact that Fred’s parents weren’t able to attend the memorial, because that question would have been answered irrefutably, definitively, and with utmost finality.
We miss ya, Fred. Say hi to Bill Cullen.