It’s a trek from Hill Street to Thompson Boulevard–11 years, to be exact.
But life is loaded with blind alleys and sudden curves, which explains why the arrogant, self-serving gasbag of a police chief from “Hill Street Blues” is pulling a desk shift at a community storefront in midtown Ventura.
A woman strides in with questions about a trash-strewn lot.
“Can’t you get it cleaned up?” she asks. “Can’t you send in the Boy Scouts? How about some delinquents?”
Jon Cypher–the actor who portrayed Chief Fletcher P. Daniels in all of his oleaginous glory–assures her the situation will reach the ears of the authorities. As Jon Cypher, he is neither arrogant nor self-serving–just a cordial retiree wondering what to do for this distressed citizen. Marilyn Borgaro, his fellow volunteer at the Midtown Ventura Community Resource Center, takes down the details.
That was the extent of the serious business in Cypher’s first three-hour shift. The storefront is just getting off the ground, and many people in the neighborhood don’t know about it yet. Ultimately, it will be a place where kids come for after-school tutoring and neighbors come to complain about a junked car on their street. Equipped with a table and a phone in the back room, police officers will drop in for a cup of coffee and an earful from midtown residents.
But for now the storefront in the half-empty strip mall on Thompson is a place where volunteers wait for business and schmooze, a forgotten function in many neighborhoods.
At 66, Cypher is trim and vaguely distinguished even in his jeans and plaid shirt. He didn’t set out to Do Good; he heard about this place from a man he met while walking his dog. The idea of giving something back to the community appealed to him.
“I never really involved myself much with community stuff,” he says. “In acting, everything is so en passant. You get to know people and then suddenly they’re gone.”
The talk wanders: Farmland being gobbled up. The neighborhood coming together. The weather, El Nino, the floods. The homeless lady shambling down the street. The Arkansas schoolyard massacre. What’s wrong with these teenagers today? the little group wonders. Is it guns? Is it single-parent families? “It’s the psychologists,” someone offers. Then again, maybe it’s TV.
Cypher jumps in with gusto. He doesn’t care much for TV. The cheap sex demeans us, and the violence endangers us. But “Hill Street”–with its tough talk and its raw moments and its groundbreaking realism–now there was a show.
“It was Shakespeare!” Cypher exults. “Every week I’d finish reading the script and say, ‘They’ve done it again!’ ”
Cypher’s character, a politically savvy headline-grabber, bore an uncanny resemblance to Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles police chief at the time. But most of his roles have been modeled on more generic authority figures.
He played the surgeon, the general, the attorney and other such parts in a long list of TV, film and stage productions. He was in the soap “Santa Barbara,” the sitcom “Major Dad,” an ill-fated series called “Open House,” a miniseries called “Elvis and Me,” episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” TV movies not long remembered.
But such parts did not feed the inner man.
“The tongue rebels! The soul cringes!” cries Cypher, who is given to the broad gestures of a seasoned showman. “The human being was never meant to say such lines.”
Besides, he was reaching an age when “the only parts I was offered were senators and judges.” Los Angeles was becoming increasingly unlivable, the entertainment industry increasingly venal, so . . .
Cut to Ventura. Cypher and his wife, Carol Rosin, a crusader against the development of space weapons, settled into a hillside home here four years ago.
“We came down the Conejo Grade,” he recounts. “The air grew cooler, the sky grew clearer, and we drove straight to the ocean. That was it. This is paradise.”
Since then, he has done the occasional role. He has taken up his wife’s cause–“You really think Star Wars is over?” he asks–and he dabbles in writing. He has just finished a book tentatively titled “If You Aren’t Depressed, You Ought to Be in Therapy.” It’s centered on 100 limericks related to war and peace, love and death.
Asked to recite, he rises from his chair at the storefront:
“Sipping Chablis while Vesuvius
Blew its top was hardly the grooviest.
In the next war, Pompeii
Will be child’s play,
And remains from the Louvre? Dubious.”
Everyone likes it. Cypher beams. He has never before recited it in public–if a couple of volunteers on a slow day at a neighborhood storefront count as public.
It doesn’t seem the right moment to offer a pithier rendition, a la “Hill Street”:
Let’s be careful out there, people.