Tom Ferguson was an actor. You’ve never heard his name. You wouldn’t have recognize him if you sat next to him at a restaurant. He was a B-movie character actor. I used to introduce him as the consummate redneck sheriff in at least five movies with “bikini” in the title. It was an exaggeration, of course. He was only in two: Bikini Hoe-Down and Bikini Drive-In…only one of them as the sheriff.
I also used to tell a story about when Tom was broke and delivering pizzas in the Valley. With their order in hand he asked the Blockbuster clerks to type his name into the computer. “Do you have any of my movies here?” He asked in that distinctly southern American Spirit baritone of his. The clerks said they did, in fact, have some movies Tom was in. In my version he autographs the pizza box after they’ve refused to tip him well. In reality, he just announced he was shocked his movies – the kind of movies he was in – would be at Blockbuster. This gave him a twinge of satisfaction and then he left.
He liked my version better. He never repeated it but he never stopped me from telling it.
He worked in independent films made with action footage “lifted” from other films. He starred in Biohazard: The Alien Force…a sequel. He did direct-to-video movies that were hits overseas. He acted in features with budgets a quarter the size of low-end Super Bowl spots.
And he loved every minute of it.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1946, Tom was one of the first in the tsunami of Baby Boomers to follow. His parents had three children; Tom was the youngest. His mother was plagued by depression in a time before Paxil. She killed herself when Tom was 7 years old. He often wondered if this traumatic event didn’t somehow trigger to his own manic depression.
Yes. Tom was “crazy.” That’s what he called it. He was even certified by the state. Shock treatments and everything. Crazy. He wrote about it in a one-man show he titled Reverend Tommy’s Electroshock Revival. “There are worse things than being crazy. It beats being a starving child in Ethiopia or a transvestite in an Italian family,” he quipped. He talked about his alcoholism. He bragged that he was the only person in the entire state of Alabama to ever get arrested for drunk jogging. “When I quit drinking they quit locking me up,” he used to testify.
In spite of his mental illness, Tom had a normal-from-the-outside life. He was a natural salesman. He worked at a bank, introducing the South to credit cards in the ’70s. He owned a car lot, an ice cream parlor and later an arcade named Fergie’s Fun House. He was Florida’s Chamber of Commerce ambassador for the state. He had two failed marriages. Two accomplished children.
Tom always wanted to be an actor. Once his children were grown, he moved to Los Angeles. Yes, he’d been in some movies already in Florida. But like scores of others he wanted to be in Hollywood. And so he was.
“I just want to finish good,” he’d say as his dark brown eyes became dewy with emotion.
That happened a lot. “I cry at card tricks,” he’d say.
I met Tom at a coffee shop when I was 20. He was 52. We just had a rapport. We shared a sardonic sense of humor like it was telepathy. We called each other “best friend” even though he looked like and was often mistaken for my grandfather. I can’t explain it. We just were. The last time I was able to talk to him, Tom had suffered a brain injury from a fall. He’d been in a coma. He was awake in the hospital but his mental faculties were in and out. I asked him if he knew why we were best friends.
“No. Why?” He asked.
“Because I think I’m 40 and you think you’re 40 – so we’re the same age.”
Tom stopped. His eyes became wide. “That’s fucking PROFOUND!” And then he went back to muttering about ice cream.
It was, indeed, profound. And love is profound. As is friendship.
As I write this, the world has been without Tom Ferguson for nearly 12 bleak hours. His heart gave out this morning while in the hospital after his fall. Grief is like a rake I keep stepping on. It hits me in the face and I’m stunned.
We cry and mourn for actors we’ve never met all the time. There are montages and remembrances for those whom we are not in any way personally involved with. We feel loss and sadness at their passing. They were actors in things we’ve seen. I’m tempted to name drop in an annoying Hollywood way that would surely irk Tom just to make his death seem more monumental – more jarring to strangers. He was a stand in for Donald Sutherland. His roommate was Brittany Murphy’s father. He befriended Brett Butler. He was in a film with Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals. He was in the cast of Dolly Parton’s short-lived variety show.
There’s one story – a Hollywood tale that sums up the humanity of Tom Ferguson: A couple years ago Tom was at a 7-Eleven. A homeless guy offered to clean his windows for some spare change. “They usually just smear the dirt around. So I said, ‘I’ll give you five bucks not to wash my windows, how’s that?’” The two struck up a conversation. The homeless man was Ron Turbeville. He wrote the film Buster and Billie in the 1970’s. It allowed him to work steadily as a script doctor for many years until booze and eventually crack took it all away. The two men became close. Ron used Tom’s address to receive his WGA pension and social security checks. Tom was not grandiose about this. He didn’t think he was going to save Ron from the streets. Ron had emphysema, Hepatitis C, no teeth and had resigned to sleep in a freeway adjacent park – Tom believed he was just spending time with an old guy awaiting the inevitable call from the city morgue.
Scientists should study how Turbeville is still alive – how it’s possible he outlived Tom. They should go find the bridge he’s under and cart him off to a lab.
Anyway, in that relationship are two Hollywood sagas much more common than the ones leading Entertainment Tonight: Ron’s is one of luck and loss, his penance being obscurity. Tom’s is one of quiet redemption, love and simply “finishing good.”
Tom Ferguson was a brilliant actor and embodied what’s best about our species. His death means the world’s median level of compassion has declined. It’s a loss for us all.