The Swashbuckling Babysitter: An Interview with Ernie Capeci

Before Richard Hunt joined the Muppets and became a master puppeteer, he held a series of odd jobs: he delivered newspapers, prepared weather reports for radio DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow, and babysat for various families in and around Closter, New Jersey, including the five “headstrong” Capeci siblings.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ernie Capeci, who, though initially Hunt’s babysitting charge, eventually became his lifelong friend. He generously shared stories of their childhood neighborhood adventures, the origins of Muppet character Janice, Hunt’s experience of the AIDS crisis and his complex path to self-acceptance.

Jessica Max Stein and Ernie Capeci
Lower East Side, NY NY
March 2010

JMS: So first of all, how and when did you two meet?

EC: I remember the moment I met him. My parents hired him to babysit us for two weeks. They went on a vacation to Europe.

Nobody ever came back to babysit us twice. We were horrors. My parents had five kids in six years, so we were all roughly the same age, and every one of us was headstrong. We were tough kids. A guy up the block suggested Richard, who had just graduated high school, so it was around 1969.

I was a kid, I was about 13. I was mowing the lawn in the back of our house in Demarest, and I looked up and there was this guy, standing with his arms crossed, just staring at me. I remember he asked me what kind of music I liked, and I told him Jimi Hendrix, which he thought was cool.

My parents went off to Europe, and he moved in, and from then on, he was like my idol. He was unbelievable. Like I said, we were terrors, we were very physical, we were very rowdy, and he wound up terrorizing us – that was how he dealt with us. [laughs]

He shot flaming arrows at me. He was a big Errol Flynn fan, particularly back then. He loved swashbuckling movies.

He was really allergic to ragweed. There was ragweed all by the garage, and he paid me to go out and pick the ragweed. I had a target archery set that I hadn’t used since fourth grade. It was sitting around the house. He found it immediately. I leaned down to pluck up this ragweed and there was this boing, and an arrow was sticking out of the garage wall right over my head! [laughs]

He had never fired a bow before, as far as I know, and he was trying to shoot an arrow at me. I went crazy. I said, “That thing has three feathers, it could go anywhere, aaah!” Eventually we graduated to flaming arrows.

JMS: How do you even set the arrows on fire?

EC: He found rags, there’s always gasoline for the lawnmower… It became a game. Everybody started shooting. All my friends would come over, and we would assault him, basically. There would be twenty, twenty-five seventh-grade boys, and often my sisters and their friends too. Could be up to fifty children just running after him, throwing ourselves at him, attacking him.

He babysat me for two weeks. I didn’t see him for a year or so after that. I was a freshman in high school. We were hanging out in the street one day and all of a sudden this car came by with this guy hanging off of it with a movie camera, going, “Faster! Faster! Faster!” and this little blond kid riding a bicycle – it was Richard shooting a movie of [his brother] Adam, riding a bicycle down the street. We all chased after him – “Hunt! Hunt! Hunt!”

So there was a gap of about a year, where this crazy babysitter came into my life and left. And then soon after that, after I started high school [in 1970], we became friends.

JMS: What was he like then? It seems like he was different with different people.

EC: He had a lot of sides, and he was a natural actor. He grew up, as I understand it, feeling very much an outsider, and being mocked. I think like a lot of people he had, deep down, a lot of self-doubt that he fought his way through. A book he read all the time was Dune – the sci-fi book by Frank Herbert – and he was always big on that “fear is the mind-killer” thing. It’s part of the training that the good guys go through – “Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the mind-killer.” Richard really took that to heart. He just would throw himself into things.

I think he probably was a lot of things to a lot of people. I also think he, really like a lot of us, was finding himself, too. We put things out to different people. We also find ourselves reflected in other people in an interesting way.

He came up with some of his [Muppet] characters, when we were just smoking pot up in his room. Janice, I was there when he came up with her. Many of the characters came up with Richard just mocking people. The hippie chick was just like the hippie chick. That was something Richard did for years. The names came later.

Then I went away to college, so I missed a lot of the first four years of the Muppet Show. He came out to Oregon to see me a couple of times, though, from L.A. when they were doing movies. And I visited once or twice.

JMS: You went out to England? How was that?

EC: I liked it. I remember a lot of driving around. Richard had a tremendous sense of direction. He would drive around and pretend to be lost, and I would always be freaking out. “We can’t be lost in London. Look at this, there’s nothing square.” But he never was lost, ever.

He was always trying to get me to meet all these famous people, and it just scared the hell out of me. I remember going out to Woburn Abbey. We went around and saw all the old art, it was a great old abbey, beautiful, and then we pulled up to this beautiful building and he goes, “Oh, and this is the rectory,” and Cleo Laine came running out, “Oh, Richard, Richard, Richard!” We were at Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s house! We spent the evening there being regaled. She was probably one of his favorite celebrities from the Muppet Show. Richard was always very comfortable. I was so awestruck.

I remember a birthday party that was thrown for him at someone’s house, one of the producers of the Muppet Show. The door opens, and everyone goes, “Oh, hi, Candy.” Candice Bergen comes in with this big cake of Adidas sneakers [like Richard often wore]. “Ernie, this is Candy.” I’m like, “I can’t believe you did this to me again!”

JMS: Can you tell me about Richard’s lover Nelson?

EC: He met Nelson [in the early 80s] through a friend named Dennis, who was a brilliant painter. Dennis was a straight guy, married at the time. Nelson was a friend of his, and Dennis decided he was gay, and he and Nelson did the whole bathhouse thing, the whole big kind of anonymous thing. But after something like six months or a year, he decided no, this isn’t for him.

Dennis was one of the first people anybody in our circle knew who died of AIDS. He died really horribly, but mercifully quick compared to a lot of people. Back then there were some really bad ones. That was awful. When I moved to New York, I’m straight myself, but there was something about that culture that was just so alive and free. Greenwich Village was just fantastic. And when that hit, and Reagan was president, it was really like some weird Biblical thing was being visited on us. It was very freaky.

Nelson was a brilliant artist. He was from Alabama. He worked for one of the ad agencies in graphics, but he had also gone to art school. Nelson painted abstracts. Richard had one hanging over his bed at his apartment on the Upper West Side right up until the end.

They lived together in the West Village for a while. They loved each other. Nelson was very quiet, very different from Richard. A very private guy. Richard had such a broad range of friends, but by and large they all tended to be raucous people. Theatrical, and not meaning of the theater, but people who were theatrical in their lives. But Nelson was very atypical. He was very shy, very reserved. I was at first kind of surprised. I thought he was very smart. Once you talked to him, he was a fascinating person.

I think Nelson was the first time he was in love with somebody where there was the possibility of a long-term relationship. And he was somebody who was looking for love as much as anything else. I know he went around to all those scenes, but I’m not sure how much he participated. That was never going to be Richard’s thing. He was all about falling in love.

After Nelson died [in 1985 of AIDS-related complications], Richard and I flew to Italy. He and Nelson had taken this big trip a couple years earlier, and we were going to go to a lot of the same places.

It was [December] ’86. America had just bombed Libya, and killed Muammar al-Gaddafi’s adopted daughter. Almost everybody in America cancelled their European vacation that year, for fear of terrorist reprisal. We got on a plane, there was a fuck-up with the travel agent; we were supposed to fly to Rome, but for some reason we were booked to Milan. We got off at Malpensa airport in Milan, which I believe translates into “bad thoughts”. We flew over there, there was more crew than passengers, and Richard had a pound of pot, probably an ounce of cocaine. I remember the crew didn’t have anything to do, so we’re sitting in the back, snorting coke with all the stewardesses, stewardesses running into the bathroom.

And then we get off the plane, in Milan – this place is empty. Richard says, “I want you to stand on a different line from me, because you look like a terrorist.” I had all this scraggly hair, my passport photo looked like a mugshot. He got on the one line, and I got on the other, and I just sat there and watched as a little dog walked up to him and went [sniffs], and they led him away.

He spent three days in jail. In New York, for what he was carrying, he would have gone to jail for at least a few years. Mandatory. In Italy they just wanted to kick him out of the country. But we flew in on the feast of the patron saint of Milan, on a Friday, and so there were no judges til Tuesday. So he spent three days in jail, I spent three days wandering around Milan. We went out to visit him one day.

The big joke was, it was supposed to be the most up-to-date prison, because it was a dirt floor, and the toilet was a hole in the ground. And we all said, “How was your cellmate Bruno,” and that kind of stuff. But I gather it was scary because he didn’t know the language, and they kept telling him he needed an avocado. He was like, “Why do I need an avocado?”

JMS: An avocado?

EC: Avvocato. It’s a lawyer. [laughs]

When he got arrested in Italy, one of the big things, worse than the drugs, was the fact that he was carrying Nelson’s passport, and they thought that meant he was up to some kind of a weird… You know, why do you have two passports? But it was just a memento. Part of that trip was, in Richard’s mind, that we were going to go to all these places where he went with Nelson, and he was going to be carrying Nelson’s passport.

Personally, I think for Richard that it’s better that he didn’t make that trip. I think there was something maudlin about it. That’s just me. But I think it might have been easier to let go, after being thrown in jail for carrying his passport. I don’t know.

Richard also, after Nelson died, steadfastly refused to get tested. Just didn’t want to know. That was the choice of a lot of people, because it was pretty much a death sentence. Although other people from the same time are still alive. It was a real crapshoot as to whether or not your doctors were guessing right. They tried so many different things.

JMS: When did he tell you he was HIV positive?

EC: That trip would have been ’86, which by then I’m sure he would have tested positive, had he done it. I would say ’87, at the earliest. Maybe it wasn’t til ’89. He might have gone a long time without getting tested.

My memory of it is that Richard, once he was diagnosed, he fought it. His doctor was very aggressive, and he tried all these different things. I recall that whole process as lasting about two years, and then he got sick. Once he really started to show all the avian stuff, and the Kaposi’s and all that stuff started happening, it was five, six months. Pretty quick as I recall. So maybe two years of trying to stave it off, all kinds of false hope, this and that, “Now my t-cell count is this.” But I honestly don’t know when he was diagnosed.

JMS: I’m getting mixed messages about how out he was. Some people have said he wouldn’t have liked being called a gay Muppeteer, that he was conflicted about it.

EC: I couldn’t tell you for sure. He had a lot of friends who were queens, for want of a better word. He’d say, “Oh, these are my queen friends,” and stuff, but he was a very macho kind of a guy. I think it was also, he grew up being called a fairy and things like that.

Richard’s favorite term, most of the period, was “funny boys”. He’d talk about gay people, he’d say “funny boys”. He didn’t like “queer”, he didn’t like “gay”, he didn’t like those terms. He’d say, “Well, funny boy,” this and that. That was the term he used. But he would also say “faggot” as much, if not more than I did, certainly more than I would around him and his friends.

JMS: Did he have girlfriends?

EC: Never. But he was real big on talking about it. Before he started admitting it to his friends – which to my recollection is sometime about my sophomore/junior year of high school, ’72, ’73 – he had almost gone all the way with this girl named “Julianna Davenport.” She was the most beautiful girl in his class. I remember that was a big thing. I remember being like, “Wait, you’re gay? But you almost went all the way with Julianna Davenport!”

Once he started being honest about it, he was never shy about it. To me he was always out. Coming out then was big. It wasn’t common. Certainly we knew, and he was open about it. But he was definitely conflicted about it. It was hard not to be, growing up in that world in that time. He tried very hard never to appear remotely effeminate. He wasn’t a macho guy by any means – we’re talking about a guy who listened to show tunes, for Christ’s sake.

JMS: And is a puppeteer.

EC: And is a puppeteer. Exactly. He fit the stereotype in so many different ways, and I think he didn’t like being perceived that way. I would not say, though, that he was in the closet. But Richard was not going to be marching in the parades, and things like that. That was not going to be happening.

JMS: Also, outside of the Muppets, he doesn’t really seem like a joiner.

EC: No. Like I say, he loved Errol Flynn movies. Richard was a swashbuckler in a lot of ways. He was very much into the individualism.

I personally feel, whatever, Richard’s way beyond all this. I have all kinds of spiritual concepts about afterlife and all that. I think if he’s looking on, he doesn’t really give a shit.

JMS: Were you at Richard’s memorial service?

EC: Yeah. At St John the Divine. It was very moving. It was huge. Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang, which is pretty big. And it was packed. There were a lot of people. I remember [Richard’s mother] Jane making a plea, how many people does this have to kill. Although it was this big thing, an event, and Richard loved the church and everything, I’m not sure how Richard it was, in a lot of ways.

Dave Goelz said a moving thing at Richard’s service. He said, and I agree with him, that he thought that when Richard got sick, he had finally started to accept himself. I think that’s true. I don’t think it was just his sexuality. There’s a certain basic self-loathing that takes a lot of time to get through, that’s societal. Whatever you are.

I thought he nailed it, myself, when he said that. Richard finally had acceptance, in a way. He had been fighting himself for so many years.

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2 Responses to The Swashbuckling Babysitter: An Interview with Ernie Capeci

  1. Erin says:

    Omg, as if I wasn’t already over-eager for the book to be published. So many great stories. I love the image of a bunch of kids running around and chasing him with flaming arrows in suburbia! And him pretending they were lost in London. lol.

    In “Memoirs of a Muppets Writer”, Joseph Bailey tells about how Richard would often would win “how-to-get-there” arguments with London cabbies. There’s also a story in there about Richard convincing an entire bus full of Brits to moon Sir Lew Grade! He just seemed like such an awesome guy.

    Keep up the good work, Max! Can’t wait for the book to come out… of the closet (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). ♥

  2. Carolyn says:

    What a wonderful interview. Thanks so much for posting this, Max.

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