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Interview with Severn Darden

"Here's another one," Severn Darden said. He was standing on the other side of the police station reading descriptions of Chicago's most wanted criminals.

"Marlin Simmons," he said. "White male, age 39, stands 5-10, 150 pounds, light brown hair, blue eyes...Good heavens, what an unflattering likeness. Looks as if he's dead." Sgt. Jones raised an eyebrow at Officer Petrasek, who shrugged and turned to Cynthia Goyette.

"Now then, young lady." Officer Petrasek said, "tell the sergeant what you told me." "It's really terribly simple." Cynthia said. "You see, I sent a friend to the currency exchange to get my driver's license renewed and she had all the papers and everything, but then she came back and said they all had to be notarized or something, but they told her at the currency exchange that you can drive with an expired license for six months after your birthday. So it's not really expired."

Cynthia looked appealingly at Officer Petrasek who looked at Sgt. Jones.

"You ever heard of that before, sergeant?" he said. "No, officer. I cannot say that I have," said Sgt. Jones who had a deep voice and wore horn-rim glasses and looked like Sgt. Bilko.

"Lonzy Harris, age 48." Darden read. "Nickname, Goldwater...Hmmm, wanted for murder."

"But I know it's legal." Cynthia said. "I've done it before. You can go for six months after your birthday."

"That's right. Keep talking." Darden said. "Convict yourself. Now tell about the small-gauge cannon in your living room." He nodded encouragingly.

"Well I don't know what the currency exchange told you, but you're driving without a license." the sergeant said. "Also, let's see, 40 in a 30 M.P.H. zone. You'll have to post $25 bond."

"I'll post my driver's license." Cynthia said.

"I don't think you get the idea." The sergeant said. "That license is only a piece of paper right now. It's no good. The fact is, you can't even drive out of here." He looked at Darden, who was examining a poster on illegal weapons. "Does he have a license?" "Yes and no." Darden said. "My billfold was stolen two weeks ago, license and everything. Come have a look at this, Cynthia. Did you know mortars are illegal in private hands?"

The sergeant wrote out a receipt for Cynthia's S25 bond money. Cynthia said it was all a terrible misunderstanding. The sergeant said that, although he did not want to be guilty of a cliche, she should tell it to the judge.

"Sound advice," Darden said, opening the door so that Cynthia could leave first. "Good day, officers."

It was 4 p.m. On a Sunday afternoon and Darden, dressed in white pants and a white shirt buttoned at the neck, looked like a British colonial functionary in the dry season. "Those were very pleasant policemen." Darden said. "They're miles better than the Los Angeles cops. It was just one of those unfortunate incidents, that's all. Del Close used to do a skit at Second City about his theory of Restentialism, which accounted for all unfortunate situations. It was based on the belief that things are against us. You know, like the string from the light bulb always moves away from your hand in the dark." Cynthia nodded. "I gave Del one that really happened to me," she said. "I was always losing the key to the lobby door in my apartment building. So I got one of those magnetic things and hid an extra key under the radiator in the lobby. The next night I came home and they had taken out the radiator."

Darden and Cynthia, old friends, were on their way to eat Sunday dinner at Gladys', a restaurant near the corner of 46th and Indiana Ave. When Darden was a student at the University of Chicago and a member of the original Second City company, back in the late 1950s and early 60s he ate at Gladys whenever he could he said.

But he left Chicago in 1962 to go to New York with a Second City company (Barbara Harris, Andrew Duncan, Alan Arkin and others at one time or another). Then he went to work in the movies ("Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," "Luv," "The President's Analyst," "A New Face in Hell"). He hadn't been back to Chicago until he came back this summer to appear in "Rhinoceros" at the Academy Playhouse.

Once settled at a table, Darden announced that he would have Smothered Chicken, sweet potatoes, greens, and that he might very possibly have peach cobbler as well. "Oh, I am hungry," he said. "How long were we at the police station?" "About 45 minutes," Cynthia said.

"Boring, boring, boring." Darden Said. "Did I ever tell you about the time I got busted with Vanessa Redgrave? She used to be very political, you know. We were demonstrating on Whitehall in London. For peace, I think it was. There's a law against demonstrating while Parliament is in session. We were against the Bomb, as I recall. We were taken into court and the magistrate had one of those perfectly British names. David Home-Wheelbarrow, I think."

Darden was asked about his film career. Some critics have compared him to the early Peter Sellers. "No," he said, "I don't want to be known as the American Peter Sellers. I'd much rather be known as the California Arpad Steiner."

"The California Arpad Steiner?" Cynthia said.

"Leslie Howard's real name," Darden explained. "Did you see me on Kup's Show last night? I was on with Mort Sahl, which would have been great, but that woman - what was her name? Jacqueline Susann. She simply would not shut up. Jabber, jabber, jabber. And patronizing! Sahl was complaining about being boycotted by network TV, and she said, 'Well, my good man, when you do something really great they won't be able to keep you off.'"

Darden quivered at the memory. "Can you imagine Jacqueline Susann saying that to Mort Sahl? What has she done except write a dirty book? "She talked so much I fell asleep at one point. Then she stopped talking and the break in the rhythm woke me up."

The chicken came and Darden applied himself to it with great enthusiasm. "I never actually graduated from the University of Chicago," he recalled. "It wasn't in to graduate. Nobody ever did in those days. We spent all of our time at the Clark watching Walter Pidgeon in 'Mrs. Miniver.' Now there was a movie. I had some great friends at Chicago. Good old Seth Benardete. He did his thesis on Homer. At the time everybody believed that all of the contradictions in Homer were the result of mistakes made by generations of scribes who copied it over and over. Seth proved that all the errors were put in by Homer himself, on purpose. That took a perverse brilliance..."

"Now you've eaten all the napkins," Cynthia said.

Darden had eaten all the napkin.

"Yes," said Darden. "Once I ate all of Bobby Dylan's cucumbers," "The Bobby Dylan Cucumber?" Cynthia said. "You mean he has a cucumber named after him?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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