I’m writing these words from behind a pair of aviators, tears streaming down my cheeks, splashing the keys of the computer as though they are stones at the base of a waterfall, each drop changing the landscape forever.
The aviators don’t belong to me. They’re audacious – the type Jimmy Dean would have worn back in the day. I wish I’d met the owner of these gleaming silver sunglasses back in the day, but in a way I guess I did. In twenty years time, I’ll look back on the time I spent with David Norman Spencer and say:
“Back in the day, I knew a man who could make five hours feel like five seconds. I knew a man who lived off coffee and dreams.”
Dave’s hero was James Dean, so he told me over black coffee one day at a cafe in Hoi An, Vietnam, as we worked together on a TV script with the energy of two kids on Christmas Eve with a bellyful of red cordial. Mind you, Dave was seventy-five, thirty-four years my senior, and worked together is a bit of a stretch, rather, I blurted out fanciful ideas and Dave masterfully transposed them to script form with a lead pencil, while I slapped him on the back and pounded the table with my fist, much to the disdain of every person within fifty metres of the cafe.
“Never edit a script with a pen, because it’s never finished,” he taught me. He taught me a lot.
I first met Dave, the man with silver movie-star hair, at a beachside pub on the edge of An Bang Beach, just as the blood-orange sun was dipping below the horizon, its after-glow splashing onto the high-rises of Da Nang City, giving it the effect of a grand mirror-ball sparkling in the distance.
He was wearing a loosely fitting Haiwaiian shirt, the aforementioned silver aviators, and a smile that told you he’d seen more than most, but still wanted to see more. He saw a story in everyone. And he saw one in me.
“I hear you can spin a yarn,” he said, before taking a hearty swig from a frosty bottle of beer. Then he flashed me a smile of perfect, straight white teeth – the smile of a thousand secrets.
Dave’s best mate Reggie is my best mate’s Dad, who I grew up with in Southern Sydney. Reggie, sitting opposite Dave, nodded conspiratorially. “He’s an A-grade bullshitter just like you, Spence.”
“Good, we’ll get on just fine,” Dave beamed.
And so the three of us stuck around long after the sun did, and swapped tall tales and drank beers and laughed like a trio of crazed kookaburras.
Reggie flew back to Australia a week later, but I stayed on.
Dave told me he wanted to read my work, and I told him I’d love to read his.
Dave was a pro surfer in Bondi the 60’s, an actor and model in the 70’s and 80’s, the Artistic Director of the Actor’s Studio in Montreal in the 90’s, the inspiration for Robert G. Barrett’s book series “Woudn’t be Dead for Quids”, and a budding scriptwriter with more than forty years experience.
None of Dave’s scripts, of which there are countless piled up in his riverside home in Hoi An, made it to the screen. He had seen green lights turn red and done deals vanish into thin air, so is the nature of the industry. But he never stopped writing and never stopped believing in himself. I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of those scripts and they are brilliant. He was brilliant.
I didn’t learn about the aforementioned CV, which reads like a work of fiction, from Dave himself. And this is one of my favourite things about the great man. He’d sit on golden stories, grand achievements, the likes of which the average bloke would roll out at any pissing contest, then he’d surprise you with them when the room was quiet and the audience thin.
During one of our mammoth writing sessions I mentioned that Ita Buttrose was now the Chair of the ABC back home. He chuckled to himself, then said, “Good for her, she deserves it.” But there was more to that chuckle and cheeky smile – the smile of a thousand secrets – and so I needled him.
“What have you got for me?” I asked, closing my laptop.
“I know Ita,” he replied.
“How do you know Ita?” The looney tune smile was already stretching my face to unnatural places.
“She called me one time.”
“Why’d she call you?”
“She wanted to ask me something.”
“Come on, out with it.”
“She asked me if I’d consider being the nude centrefold for Cleo Magazine. This was back when Cleo had nude centrefolds.”
I spat my mouthful of iced coffee across the table, puddles of brown liquid landing on our day’s work.
“And what did you say?” I begged.
“I told her I wasn’t sure I could do it. That I’d give her a call back in 5 with my answer. Told her I needed to speak to someone first. She told me how much I’d get paid, which was a decent whack back then, and then I hung up the phone.”
“And who’d you call?” I was now leaning across the table, on the cusp of wringing the information out of him.
“Well, I hung up the phone and I called my Mum. I told her about the nude centrefold and she asked me…”
“Come on, what did she ask you?”
“She asked me what they were paying. And when I told her, she said ‘hang up the phone and call her back right now and tell her you’ll do it you bloody idiot’.”
I’ve since seen the nude centrefold, which Dave keeps stashed away in the attic of his home, the same home where his writing desk is an exact replica of the table from Scarface, that infamous table Tony Montana snorted cocaine from and stood behind before he screamed the iconic catchphrase, Say hello to my little friend. Dave was obsessed with movies. Perhaps this is why his life seemed like one.
I eventually sent Dave my writing, an idea for a TV show I had been toying with. It was pretty much just a word doc. with thousands of chunks of dialogue spewed onto it, completely unformatted, an absolute dog’s breakfast.
An hour later he called me and said, “You can write. But you’re not a script writer. Leave it with me.”
A week later he drove up to Da Nang from Hoi An on his motorbike to meet me in a cafe for lunch. He was carrying a blue folder, which he slid across the table, cool as you like. I opened the folder.
Dave had transformed my dog’s breakfast into a meal too good for any king or queen. He had taken my erratic dialogue, reading more like a D-grade short story, and turned it into a completed first draft of a script. God knows how long he sat behind the computer with half the keys missing on Tony Montana’s desk creating the world I now held in my hands, but I’ll never find words powerful enough to thank him for it. There was even more back slapping and table thumping in the cafe that day. Dave flashed me another smile, and it was his best one yet.
Over the next few months we caught up twice a week to work on the TV series, but Dave’s wry chuckles at my bursts of enthusiasm – he aptly nicknamed me The Werewolf – were now followed by bouts of coughing that could last for minutes. He was sick. How sick? We didn’t know. So Dave flew back to Australia a few weeks ago and was taken straight to emergency by his best mate, Reggie.
Dave passed away two weeks later with Reggie by his side.
If Dave’s hero was James Dean, then my hero was David Norman Spencer. He was my hero because he never stopped dreaming, right until the very end.
Shortly before he died at St. George hospital in Sydney on Friday November 8, 2019, he removed the oxygen mask from his face, gulped at the air, turned to Reggie and said:
“Tell Ben I have notes for episode 3. He will understand them.”
Reggie told me this about an hour after Dave left us. The people in the cafe I was working from must have thought I was a lunatic. The werewolf was laughing and crying at the same time.
Even on his deathbed, knowing the end was near, he never once stopped thinking of others, and he never once, for one moment, stopped dreaming.
And now the tears are back, splashing on the keyboard as I type.
If Dave Spencer had lived to the age of 100, no-one could ever have called him old.
Dreamers are forever young.
I’ll miss you, Dave.
My dear friend, my hero.