Nobody Beats Ralph

pedutoGTRalph Peduto (1942-2014) was a creative force on the Santa Cruz arts scene for 35 years

I’ve been feeling a great sense of loss lately—a profound numbness framed by a dark void—with the death of several close friends this spring. Last week, I received an email from Kara Guzman of the Santa Cruz Sentinel informing me of the death of my longtime paisan Ralph Peduto, following a short bout with leukemia. He was 72.

The news broke through the numbness. It stung.

Ralph was a great actor and man-about-town who I had first met during the summer of 1978, when he was performing in a play, That Championship Season, staged by my high-school pal Richard Wygant at the long-defunct Staircase Theater in Soquel. It was a moving production.

During the play’s run, Ralph and I struck up a conversation that continued for three-and-a-half decades. We shared a common Italian heritage—he from Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, me from Santa Cruz—and let’s just say the discussions often became animated. And agitated. You could take the boy out of Jersey, but you couldn’t take Jersey out of the boy. That Championship Season was Ralph’s first acting gig, but he assured me that he was committed for the long haul—that the magic of the stage was in his blood.

Ralph was consumed by the concept of becoming thoroughly engaged in the “creative enterprise,” as he called it, about putting one’s heart and passion and dreams on the line, and forging a work of art in the process. He did this in his acting and in his writing, on stage and on screen, as a radio announcer and in his acting classes that he taught locally for decades, always with great focus and dedication and a delightful joie de vivre.

A well-known and recognizable figure in Santa Cruz County, Ralph was seemingly ubiquitous. He was a regular in coffee houses, especially in downtown Santa Cruz, where he loved taking in the colorful parade of characters. He would show up for art openings and book signings, play and film premieres, political gatherings and protests, and if he was never quite a dominant force on the scene, he always a consistent presence.

During the mid-1990s, Ralph also became a frequent figure on television, when he landed a gig as the pitchman in a series of commercials for Midas mufflers. At the end of the commercial, the camera would zoom in close, and Ralph, dressed in mechanic’s garb, would proffer: “Nobody beats Midas. No-buh-dee.”

The commercials ran regionally and nationally. For years afterward, people would come up to Ralph and utter those lines. His wife Laura and son Maro told me that it actually happened in the hospital room where he died. I remember one entire lunch where Ralph tried to teach me the exact intonation he had used. I must have repeated the lines 30 times, never quite getting them perfectly. The people around us must have thought we were nuts. And he always laughed about it. He took his art and his family and his craft seriously, but never himself. He was self-effacing until the end.

I think in some ways the success of the Midas commercials distorted, or even diminished, the perception in the community of Ralph’s prodigious talents as an actor. When I nominated Ralph for a Gail Rich Award (which he received in 2000), a mutual “friend” of ours dismissed Ralph’s acting abilities because of the commercials.

I was more than a bit infuriated. Ralph had amassed an absolutely remarkable resumé in more than 40 major Hollywood films and television shows. He played a cop in Mrs. Doubtfire and an organizer in Patch Adams, both starring Robin Williams, whose work Ralph admired greatly. He had TV gigs on Cheers, Family Law and General Hospital. He also starred in a non-commercial short film, The Retirement, in which he played a hitman sent out on one last job. He nailed the role. 

Ralph was an absolutely devoted family man—to his wife Laura, to his children Maro and Oceanna, and, later, to his six grandchildren. For several years, he lived weekdays in Los Angeles with filmmaker Mark Schwartz, commuting six hours to and fro, so that he could be with his family on weekends. Sometimes I would stay in his L.A. room (it was more like a closet) when he was back north, and we’d play little practical jokes on each other by leaving notes or other comical objects for the other to discover.

It was a grueling grind for Ralph, but I never once heard him complain about it. Not about the commute, at least. He loved driving home to his family late on Friday nights, and basking in their warmth until Monday morning rolled around. Family meant everything to him.

But Ralph did complain about Hollywood—the pretensions, the nepotism, the shallowness, the cutthroat environment, the utter absence of loyalty. He was critical of the Hollywood scene without ever quite getting cynical. It was a fine line he danced upon, but never crossed, at least not with me.

For a quarter-century, that dance represented his professional life. In 2003, he wrote and starred in a brilliant one-man play about his days in L.A.—his masterpiece, really— Butt-Naked in Tinseltown, which was staged throughout California (I proudly confess to seeing it five times, wherever it was staged). Using his own career as fodder, Ralph creatively explored the promise and folly of a mainstream acting career—and his determined pursuit of the Hollywood dream, only to encounter disappointment time and time again.

But Ralph never stayed down for long. He was remarkably buoyant. I remember running into him one day on the Esplanade in Capitola, only a few hours after he learned that he had been cut out entirely from a film (a not uncommon experience in Hollywood). He was despondent about it, but during the course of our conversation, I saw him already molding that energy into a positive force for getting back in the saddle—which, of course, he did.

Our mutual friend, the writer Wallace Baine, reminded me that Ralph had a special nickname that he would call out to him in that Jersey-bred quasi-Goodfellas accent of his: “Hey, Wally B!” And he did the same with me: “Hey, Geo-D! Whassup?!?!” And he would greet me with his beautiful high-voltage smile, a firm grip or hug, always very present and connected.

Several months ago now, Ralph and I had lunch together at Ristorante Avanti, at which he gave me a copy of his novel, American Maze, which I promised to read this coming summer, and we penciled in another lunch to discuss it. I was looking forward to our get together. I guess I’ll have to wait until another lifetime. Ralph’s bright flame burned out too soon.

There will be a celebration of the life of Ralph Peduto on Sunday, June 1, 2 p.m., at Santa Cruz Memorial Oakwood Chapel, 3301 Paul Sweet Road, Santa Cruz.

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