1331 Minutes After They Never Met (2000)
Starring Craig Nelson at his absolute best. We lost him yesterday but he found and taught us long ago. I can’t stop crying but I will never stop laughing because of this great man.
A Tribute to Dr. Craig Nelson by Christopher Jug George
Handlebar Jones. Winston Larry. These are just a couple of fictional names inspired by Craig Nelson. Winston Larry is a character I’m writing but Craig brought Handlebar Jones to life in his awe-inspiring portrayal in our short film 1331 Minutes After They Never Met.
“I’m the star,” Craig said to me so often.
There’s a reason Craig reminded me of a Hollywood actor when I was young. He had a different gaze than others, wonderment existed in his eyes that inspired me to seek that same wonder. Yes, ever the teacher, but somehow more than that.
If he were here now, I would tell him he is “The Great Conveyer of Wonder.”
One of my earliest memories of him is at Wally and Sherry Johnson’s house on Cherry Creek Lane outside of Ottawa. I must have been 6 or 7. The George family and the Johnson family had gathered with a special guest, Craig Nelson.
Sometime during the day, a group of us walked into the ravine that lead to Cherry Creek, I know my dad Charles was along because there is a picture of his finger. As the land unveiled itself, we emerged from the gold and green web of light flickering in the tree tunnel leading to Cherry Creek, Craig’s face instructed this kid that something big was happening here.
“Pay attention,” his wonderment face said, “Magic Ahead!”
And there was. It was the first time I realized the world sometimes looked like my dreams, how golden yellow could be, how beautiful dying things were, how the landscape rose and fell, and gracefully gave into forever.
That last bit I wrote about 10 years ago, the details stuck with me from the late 1970s because of the look on the Great Conveyor of Wonder’s face.
I will miss our phone calls from the Schneider St. Croix River cabin. I’m so grateful to Karen and Mahlon Schneider, and to Craig, the caretaker, for letting me write there for over a decade.
When we talked on the phone we could see what the other was seeing, did I water Craig’s precious flowers, what needed to be done around the place, was the beach visible across the way, had a storm moved any of the land or trees, how high was the water level on the stairs, how big had the beaver dam become and how was the grumpy ol’ beaver and his bellyflop tail, was the possum still living in the shed, and the one summer of the solo loon who we theorized had lost its other.
I remember Craig saying “the loon is still here and still alone, or should I say, still a loon.” then giving himself a hearty laugh.
You could hear the peace in his voice when he was there. It was a different Craig.
In 1331 Minutes After They Never Met, I cast Craig as Handlebar Jones, a crazed Russian Literature professor who fell in love with a stranger’s voice on his answering machine. Craig always told me we made the Joaquin Phoenix movie “Her,” first.
When we were filming in 1999 at the University of Minnesota, I wanted to film our teaching scene in the beautiful Nicolson Hall which held a favorite American Studies classroom of mine. We had no permits, no nothing, we only hoped the room would be empty and we wouldn’t get caught. Ben Speare, the cameraman, Craig Nelson, the star, and me, quietly stormed the gates by filming Craig loudly stomping up the stairs.
What waited for us in that classroom could not be fathomed.
The scene we’d be shooting was of Professor Handlebar Jones giving a lesson of Nicolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” We snuck down the hallway and slipped into the room and suddenly, there before us on the double-wide chalkboard was a lesson written out for Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” as if an actual Russian Lit teacher knew we were coming even though all of my Russian Lit classes years before were held at Jones Hall down the road.
Craig sauntered up to the chalkboard and pointed at one word without punctuation that stood alone in the middle of the scrawling scribble: Absurd
Absurd. The perfect word for the perfect day. Craig was on fire that day, in his element, acting, teaching all in one.
In life, he blended the absurd with the real so well, pointing out their seamlessness, how they exist together, how you can get on that tightrope between the two and stay there, that enlightenment through education is worth pursuing, and when I say enlightenment, I only mean the best of you and often imagination is going to help you get there, never cower from imagination, it is instructive in the liberation of your education. To be cast in one way of thinking was no way of thinking according to Craig, knowledge was the coffee, and it was up to us to choose the size of the cup.
I know there are endless students of Craig’s out there in the world who were lucky enough to learn that secret and asked for bigger mugs because of him.
We put him in the movies, but anyone who knew him knows that he was living on film already. Craig was one of those rare people in life that was a walking picture show, easily accessed in your mind. When you think of him you hear his voice, you see his face, you see him sitting down across from you, opening his wonderment eyes wide and asking you a question about your life.
He lives among us, a star.
Christopher Jug George