Holy Cats & Superheroes: A Tribute to Jim Hendricks
Adventure and warmth. What are your first memories of such a twin combo? For me and many-a-folk, it comes in the form of Commander USA. As someone who grew up never being really moved by comic book heroes, Commander USA was a bit different for me! There was always a wink and a nod, conveying likability to the kids and a sense of knowingness to the adults, especially with the confession of, “...legion of decency, retired...” and the hearty chuckle that would always follow. The pomp and circumstance of regular superheroes can be so...boring, but not with Commander USA! Yet, who could pull off the charisma of a man who once saved many a day and genuinely enjoy bringing fringe culture film delights ranging from classics like Rabid (1977) to the Andrew Prine occult vehicle, Simon, King of the Witches (1971)? There was a man, in fact, only one man, who was primed perfectly for the job, all in the form of actor James Hendricks.
Hendricks, both a stage and screen performer who was honest about the realities of being a working actor, including having jobs as a disc jockey, as well as a cab driver to help pay the bills, was a force of nature. The realm of horror hosts, an elite club featuring a gloriously motley crew of men, women, and ghouls presenting the classics and schlocks to a legion of young and young at heart across the land, is a rich one. But even in this great land, James Hendricks stood out. Combining the good looks and aura of a Clark Gable-type gone to seed with the earthiness of your lovable whiskey-soaked uncle (come to think of it, those two aren't really that divergent), Hendricks as Commander USA was stellar in the way that once seen, you never ever forget.
And I found out earlier this week, that he's gone.
James Hendricks passed away on March 17th, 2018, which also happened to be St. Patrick's Day. I only saw this news surface on Facebook about two days ago, which had been passed down from a handful of personal friends of Hendricks. Maddeningly, there are no proper obituaries due to Hendricks' wishes. Of course, that said, can you ever really fault someone for wanting privacy and dignity with passing into the next realm (whatever that may be)? Absolutely not. But the man deserves something, and I truly hope that wherever he is now (undoubtedly somewhere phantasmagorical, like an Elk's lodge with a well-stocked liquor bar and the original Santo and Bela Lugosi playing cards in the corner), that this humble tribute makes him smile and not feel like any tacky intrusion.
Hendricks' turn as Commander USA, a superhero hiding out in a secret base connected to a shopping mall in the Garden State itself, New Jersey, was a thing of pure glory. Even if he was presenting a movie that you genuinely wanted to watch, and given the list of films he did present, that was more often than not, you could not wait for the film to hurry up and get back to the Commander and his assorted shenanigans. Whether it was him hanging out with some hippie chick playing with nudist barbies or writing a bodice-ripper novel for Mother's Day, the man and his character was the living, breathing antonym of boring and staid. Throw in his constant sidekick, “Lefty,” which was literally the Commander's left hand with a happy face drawn on with an unlit cigar, and you have a cult film hootenanny full of goony situations and humor that could border on the subversive. I'll never forget this episode where the Commander jokes about only being in one film and all you could see was his socks. Is that a stag film reference? Is it wrong that I hope so? Probably but it feels so right.
A lot has been said in comparing both the Commander's appearance and real-man-edging-on-sleazy swagger to the character of The Comedian in Alan Moore's stone-cold masterpiece of a graphic novel, The Watchmen. I haven't been able to find anything that has given any heft to this, yet, but it is a cool thing to think about. Commander USA debuted at the USA network in 1985 and the first issue of The Watchmen was released in 1986, so anything is possible. It's probably just a neat coincidence and thankfully we were spared seeing our beloved Commander being the lone gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas back in 1963. That's a bit dark, even for the Commander.
One of the biggest things that made Hendricks really shine, though, was his genuine enthusiasm. You could not help but smile or laugh whenever he did. Even better, was that unlike the snarkier peers of his era, he truly seemed to enjoy a lot of the movies he presented. Even when he's kidding about some of the ridiculousness going on in the films, it was always in the spirit of film loving fun. He completely lacked any condescension and being more akin to the good-natured riffing all cineastes do while sitting on the couch with a tiny handful of our like-minded loved ones and friends. Given how much genre films, especially back in the 1980s but even now, just get automatically sneered at, seeing the Commander's warmth and magnetism throughout the show, was a breath of fresh air of the highest proceedings.
Hendricks continued to do stage and the occasional on-screen work after Commander USA's Groovie Movies was canceled in 1989. (And yes, many of us never quite forgave the USA Network for this. Also canceling Reel Wild Cinema a few years later did not help matters. You owe us all, USA.) Despite this, he seemed to maintain a fairly low profile, though surfacing long enough to be interviewed for John E. Hudgens horror-host documentary, American Scary (2006.) And no surprise to anyone who has been reading this tribute, Hendricks comes across as charming, a riveting storyteller, and wholly down-to-Earth. To the extent that it makes one wish he had been used even more throughout the film, which for the record, is totally worth checking out. (If you can find a copy since, at the time of this writing, it looks to be pretty massively out-of-print.)
When someone special cuts out unexpectedly in this life, it's the strangest type of sadness. There is the initial shock, the melancholy, and the frustration of finality. That said, when someone special, and certainly Jim Hendricks was absolutely dynamite, passes away, they are leaving behind a mark of their own unique stardust that can never be touched. The gift of getting to make a mark so many people is proof that magic is real and Jim Hendricks was and forever is magic.
“Keep your nose in the wind & your tail to yourself!”
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