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Uncle Vic Uncle Vic had fun with his Facebook Profile pictures. The above is my favorite. He titled it “Alaskan Redneck”

My Uncle Victor passed away last night. He took his own life.

He had some horrible variety of cancer that was attacking his body and giving him agonizing back pain. While it likely wouldn’t have taken him for some time, the pain wasn’t going anywhere. While he didn’t mark his calendar, he has been preparing his family and friends for Thursday night over the past few months, although I’ll be honest when I say I didn’t expect it to actually happen. He went peacefully.

If you recognize his name, it’s because my son’s middle name is also Victor. Dom was named after his great grandpa, but it’s a family name, so I guess in a way he was named after Uncle Vic too. So what am I going to tell my son, Dominic Victor, about my Uncle Victor–the man who affectionately referred to me as “poopeater?” (And no, there is no story behind the nickname, except that when I was eight the word “poop” was considered the pinnacle of comedic genius and Uncle Vic was always willing to oblige.)

Well, first I’ll give Dom the basics. Uncle Vic was an actor. I saw him on stage and on TV. He was enormously tall and by all accounts equally talented. He had the loudest laugh I’ve ever heard, and he would say anything to anyone.

But once I get passed the surface, I’m going to tell Dom that Uncle Vic taught me you don’t have to agree with everything someone says or does to love them, or to be loved by them. My Uncle was pretty much my polar opposite. We disagreed on almost everything and have made very different decisions in our lives, but we just kept right on loving each other anyway. And please don’t misinterpret that last sentence as a reference to his homosexuality, it wasn’t.

But since you brought it up, my first vivid memory involving my uncle is when my mom told me he was gay. I remember being a chubby little seven year looking forward to staying with my uncle on a visit to Chicago. For some reason I also remember I was wearing my brand-new Joker t-shirt (the Jack Nicholson incarnation). I remember being relieved that nothing was actually wrong with him because, based on the “we need to talk about Uncle Victor” intro to the conversation, I expected to hear that he was hurt in an accident, or worse yet, was canceling the visit.

Soon after my initial worry dissolved away, I remember feeling guilty for saying all of those horrible little rhymes that seven year-olds say about homosexuality. You know the ones:

“I love you, you love me, homosexuality. People think that we’re just friends but we’re really lesbians.”

At an early age I learned that I had someone who I loved dearly who was gay, and that shielded me from falling into whatever sexist, racist, homophobic thought patterns some children seem to develop during their formative years.

That weekend in Chicago, his partner Mark was given a proper introduction as Uncle Vic’s boyfriend. We made a hundred paper cranes and played with Mark’s Casio keyboard. It could actually record your voice and then play it backwards. We laughed for about an hour when we realized that “wake up” sounds an awful lot like “F*** you” when played backwards in a muffled robotic keyboard voice.

Mark died of AIDS a few years later. Mark and Uncle Vic had broken up before Mark was diagnosed. My uncle’s next love, Scott, already had HIV when they met. I was a big fan of Scott. He would see middle-aged women, trying desperately to defy the cruel aging process, walking down the street in ridiculous outfits deemed fashionable by whatever designer was popular that week, and simply comment, “well, it’s not for everyday wear.” I spread Scott’s ashes in Italy with my Uncle. Uncle Vic gave me Scott’s cuff links. I wore them to a wedding a few weeks ago and remembered him fondly.

I just reread that last paragraph. It’s funny how fragmented memory can be. I didn’t think about Italy when I heard the news this morning. It was only after I made it through the maze of my mind to Scott. Even now, it seems my brain will only release little vignettes of our trip to Italy, even though some of my fondest memories of Uncle Vic come from those two weeks.

However, I do remember Uncle Vic hanging his head out of my great aunt’s window into the crowed plaza below and shouting “look at these American whores!” in perfect Italian, as my mom and aunt approached. They didn’t think it was as funny as we did.

I also vividly remember the vile dinner we were served at some obscure relative’s house. Uncle Vic and I hid the mystery meat in the potted plant sitting behind our chairs, rather than subject our stomachs to its stench. Uncle Vic asked for seconds and thirds just to amuse me with new and inventive ways of disposing of the meal. During dinner, he also routinely made vulgar and offensive remarks in English to the Italian-only speaking audience. He would say things like, “The meal you just served tasted like dog shit,” with the same inflection you would normally hear, “thank you so much for your hospitality.” It was his goal to make his sisters and nephew laugh uncontrollably in front of their old-world relatives. As soon as we stepped foot outside the door, our pent-up laughter erupted through the Italian countryside.

Finally, I remember taking a few morning runs with Uncle Vic through the cobblestone streets of Rivisondoli, just silently enjoying his company.

It was rare to enjoy his company silently. He usually never shut up. When he spoke he was often saying things I didn’t agree with. He would swear loudly and make vulgar sexual comments in public places just for shock value. Although to be fair, I suspect he would tell you he did it as a social service. He believed that most people are prisoners of their own guilt and misguided sense of right and wrong. He postulated that if everyone would just tell the truth and stop pretending to be pure and pious all the time, the world would be a better place—at least a more honest place. He hated false-pretense and believed that the lies we tell ourselves are the most insidious. He’s probably right about that one.

He never understood how my faith could be anything but an unnecessary shackle. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept of faith bringing with it freedom. While he had some choice words for “organized religion,” he had at least some respect for my personal faith. Don’t get me wrong, he thought I was nuts, but he loved and accepted what he perceived to be my nuttiness. He wanted to know every detail about me, even the not so nice ones. Okay, especially the not so nice ones. He didn’t judge me, he just wanted to know me all the way to my core.

And that’s how I loved him, all the way to my core; for who he was; for everything he was; for what he taught me about myself. He wrote something on his blog a few weeks ago that has stuck with me, and I find myself going back to it again and again today. Here is a quick excerpt:

Vic’s Love Q&A:

Q: What’s the difference between unconditional and conditional love?

A: This is a trick question: If it’s not unconditional, it’s not love. Conditional love isn’t love at all, it’s barter.

Q: So you’re saying the phrase “unconditional love” is redundant.

A: Yep, I am.

And so am I, Uncle Vic. I love you unconditionally because there is no other way to love.

Rest in peace, Poopeater.


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15 Responses to “Uncle Vic”

  1. Allison Burnett Says:

    Beautiful tribute to an unforgettable man. I met Victor 33 years ago. He acted in two plays that I wrote and we saw each other on and off over the years…. I was stunned that he actually went through with it and, ever since, have been battling with feelings of anger and sadness at his stubborn choice. Thanks for writing this. Best, Allison Burnett

  2. David Briggs Says:

    Hi Andy,
    Beautiful blog. As one of your Uncle Vic’s best friends since college, I know how much Vic loved his family and you. I can’t believe he’s really truly gone.
    I remember visiting him in either LA or Chicago and hearing that I think you or some other members of the family would be visiting soon, and I noticed he had a photo of the Pope on his fridge with Vic’s own obscene photo-collage addition attached to the Pope’s mouth. I suggested he might want to take that down before family arrived. Of course a horrified “Oh God, NOOOOO WAY, Dave!!!” was his response.
    For better or worse, Vic refused to censor himself to accomodate others’ comfortability. I loved him very much, and he knew and loved me like a brother. And he could make me laugh harder than any other human being on earth.
    All the best,
    David Briggs

  3. Melanie Joyce Says:

    Andy, thank you for writing this about Vic. i liked hearing about the time you found out he was gay and i’ve always loved the story about him hiding food in the planters in Italy (that one makes me laugh every time…no matter how many times i’ve heard it!!). It’s crazy how memories come back to you. I’ve been remembering things i had kind of forgot about too. Though i am newer to the family and didn’t know uncle Victor nearly as long as you, joe, ellen, brad, etc. I am so thankful for the moments i did have with him. the family game of celebrity when Vic got pissed and tore up the name because he couldn’t read the handwriting and didn’t know who the person was comes to mind. ha. joe and i were just in LA this year and had some wonderful late night conversations with him in his apartment…(while Vic fixed himself two full sandwiches and devoured them as if they were nothing). i think we all kind of knew it would probably be the last time. :( we will miss him so much. his spirit in our family was incredible…and yes, loud and vulgar as well.

    let’s make some plans to get together soon so we can see Dom and reminisce about Vic.

    love,
    Melanie

  4. Pat Katzmann Says:

    Hi Andy,

    A mutual high school friend asked me for the link to your uncle’s blog, and when I visited it just now to get the URL, I was very sad to learn that he was already gone.

    I first met Victor in July of 1962, when we were five. My parents and I moved into a bungalow on Clearview Avenue in Parma across the street from Victor’s house. I wonder if your mom or her sister remember me? My name was Pat Kovachevich then.

    We were best frenemies for a while, started kindergarten that September. Victor used to love to tap dance wearing my mary janes. Some time around first or second grade, the D’Altorios moved to Marda Drive and Victor changed schools. Our parents still occasionally socialized, but over time we lost touch. Victor and I found each other again at Normandy High School, where we were involved in play production, and we both ended up attending Northwestern University’s School of Speech (now known as the Communications Dept.) — he of course was a Theater major, and I majored in Radio/TV/Film.

    We didn’t see much of each other at university, nor were we in touch when we both lived in L.A. We only reconnected last September, and unfortunately, that’s the last time we communicated. You may not be surprised to learn that the communication involved a vulgar, but hilarious (and believable) rumor your uncle had forgotten he’d perpetrated in high school about a fellow classmate (who also ended up attending Northwestern). I was able to show him that somehow, like a perfectly constructed joke, that old rumor generated a real life call back 35 years later. At least I know that that brief email exchange made him laugh.

    I’m very sorry Victor and I didn’t get to see each other again. Please convey my deepest condolences to your family.

    Best regards,
    Pat Katzmann

  5. Larry Garner Says:

    Hello Andy,
    Thank you for your moving remembrances of your uncle Vic. I was his student for a number of years in Chicago, a member of his ill-fated theater company, and his interpreter for phone calls to his zia Elisabetta as well as for 2 visits he made to the zia’s place in Rivisondoli (he pulled the same stunt with me as he did with you, asking me to translate utterly outrageous comments about whores and sexual practices that I felt obliged to reconfigure). I continue to work as an actor in Chicago, and often find myself comparing the directors I work with to Victor–they invariably come up short.
    best wishes, Larry Garner

  6. Russell Says:

    That was lovely. It really was.

  7. Marlene Says:

    Thank you so much for bringing your uncle’s amazing life force with your beautiful words and vivid detail. I love the image of Victor yelling American whores to an Italian plaza. So funny and precisely what made him such an outrageous delight to be around. He taught me the power in being authentic.

  8. LJB Says:

    I was missing Vic and came across your tribute. He was a mentor to me while I was in Chicago. The thing about Vic is that he made everyone feel special in love in a very specific way. I miss him. Thanks for the stories, it helped me recall all the things I loved about him.

  9. Tiffany Says:

    I was thinking of Victor and the major impact he had on me when I was in his acting classes in Chicago and found these powerful words you’ve shared here. I’m definitely a better person [of faith] and of course a better artist and teacher because of all that I learned in the 3 years that I studied with him. Your uncle is one of the voices I carry in my head to keep me real and unafraid to look and risk. Thank you for this reflection.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    Hi. Thank you for sharing. Victor was my acting teacher in Chicago and I moved to L.A. the same time he did. He made a huge impact on my life and was very supportive of me. I often wished I saw him out and about in West Hollywood, but never did. I decided to look him up and that is how I found your website. The news took my breath away and not in a good way. I am very sorry for you and the world’s loss

  11. Joanne Murray Says:

    Thanks for all your memories, Andy. I didn’t know Victor that well, and in fact, I just learned of his death yesterday. Scott was one of my dearest friends and colleagues at the Chicago Historical Society, and that’s how I got to know Victor. Oddly, we hadn’t met when I was an actor before the history bug got me.

    I got to know Victor best when Scott was dying. We conspired to help Scott understand that his illness was not shameful and that he could share his end days with colleagues as well as those closest to him. Before Scott began his fight, we went to see Victor in a show – Hairspray, I think. He was so talented and funny, both on-stage and off. He was also kind and loving, and decidely out there with everything he thought and felt. I wish I had known him better. And I am not surprised that he had the courage to end his own ongoing battle with pain. I am very sad today, but a better person for having known Victor.

    -Joanne Murray

  12. The Giving Tree | Notorious D.A.D. Says:

    [...] up. It’s the only kind of love I knew because, as it turns out, there is no other kind. As my uncle so aptly said, conditional love isn’t love at all, it’s barter. As a kid, hell, even as a teenager, I [...]

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    [...] he wasn't what someone might consider "obviously gay." In other words, he was not "flaming." Simply an Italian man of lean [...]

  14. Cindy Barrymore Says:

    I’m still in shock that he’s passed away.

    I actually thought about Victor many times a month throughout the years and even corresponded with him a few times after he moved to California. Why he’s on my mind this week is I covered the Pride Parade on assignment last Sunday. Because of the recent same-sex marriage victories, the parade was a bit more celebratory than usual. So I took the time to blog about some of the people in LGBT community who’ve shaped my way of thinking. Victor was one of those people, in addition to being my acting coach. I had a more personal relationship with Vic than perhaps some of his students because while working on a book project I spend hours interviewing him about his views on religion, homosexual, and society, among many other things.

    When I sat down to blog, I wondering what he was up to. Then I giggled because I wondered how well I hid my crush on him (especially after finding out he was gay!), so I was going to ask him and hopefully share a thunderous laugh. We were honest with each other that way.

    Anyway, that’s how I fell upon visiting this site. Needless to say, I’m a lot sadder now, than I was (as he liked to say) the moment before.

    The blog isn’t entirely dedicated to him because I just learned of his death about an hour ago. But I retell a little bit about him here: http://www.chicagonow.com/celebrity-seen/2013/07/how-i-show-my-gay-pride/#image/1

    I doubt it’s something you don’t know about him. But hopefully it’ll make you and all the rest (of us) who knew him smile. Love you, Victor. Rest in peace. I miss and love you immensely.

  15. Wynne (SAmuel) Kirschbaum Says:

    I doubt he would even remember me, but with a smile and alive personality as Victor had, I will NEVER forget him. In fact, I learned of his tragic loss catching up with other fellow pals/graduates of the class of 1975/Normandy High School. I spend the last several years looking for his smile, his fun antics on stage or screen. I KNEW he would make it. He was always kind to me, always said hello and NEVER had a nasty thing to say about anyone. My very best to your family and I know you have his soul in heaven to look after you here on earth. He will always be in my memories! Wynne Samuel Kirschbaum

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