Celebrated comedy writer Tom Leopold on his conversion to Catholicism: “I began to identify with Our Lady..."
"I am a fan, but not a mad fan,” I assure Tom Leopold when we meet for coffee on a foggy day in west London. Leopold is a renowned comedy writer who wrote sketches for Bob Hope and worked on Seinfeld, Cheers and Will and Grace, to name but a few items on his long list of credits. At Easter 2011, he converted to Catholicism, and he describes his journey to the Church in his one-man show “A Comedy Writer Finds God”. Currently he is in London for a six-week stint as a writer on The Kumars, a comedy series about an Indian family in Britain.
|Seinfeld Episode, The Suicide, written by Leopold|
It feels slightly dreamlike to meet Leopold in the flesh. When I say I’m glad to meet him, he says, “the honour is mine” and remarks that “writing for The Catholic Herald must be great. After all, you’re writing about the Boss…” He points a finger upwards to heaven and chuckles softly. Leopold is dressed in a Paddington Bear style, with a blue wool coat, along with trainers. His face is topped by a cap of grey hair, and he has animated green eyes, framed by thick rimmed glasses.
For someone who is so accomplished, he is both very down-to-earth and incredibly lively. With zealous delight, he recounts his life story. He was the second of four boys born to Jewish parents in Miami. But he says he never made his Bar Mitzvah. “My parents were not religious in the least,” he explains. “The Oscars was the focal point of their year. Watching it was like their sacramental experience.”
While his parents were not observant Jews, they were very proud of their ethnicity. Leopold tells “a true account that is a family legend”. His father became a shoe salesman after fighting in World War II. One day he was serving a man, but could not find the right shoe size. The man berated him and called him “a dirty Jew”. Upon hearing the insult, Leopold’s father threw the man through the window.
In his 20s Leopold developed a successful comedy writing career. He revelled in the single man’s life, enjoying cocktails by the pool of the Playboy Mansion with Sammy Davis Jr and believing he
would remain a confirmed bachelor. Then he suddenly fell madly in love with the woman who later became his wife when he met her on a blind date. He told her he was surprised by how much he wanted to marry, to which she replied: “Who is asking you?”
They’ve been married for more than 26 years now, and have two daughters, Olivia, 21, and Augusta, 18. Augusta, who is known as Gussie, has been afflicted by anorexia since she was 12. I ask Leopold if there was any traumatic life event that led to her illness, but he sighs and says regretfully: “Anorexia runs in my family. I had it a bit when I was a teenager, which is rare for boys. My mother has had it. We call her ‘the oldest living anorexic in the world’.”
Leopold’s voice becomes thick with tears when he explains that his faith grew out of the experience of his daughter’s illness. “We nearly lost her several times,” he says. “Watching your child suffer is worse than suffering yourself.”
Leopold’s first spark of faith happened some years ago in a curious place: Radio City Music Hall in New York. He took his family to see the Christmas show and they had a “corny” Nativity show. While he watched the actors play the Holy Family, Gussie cuddled up to him and he felt a spasm of sorrow that she had become so terrifyingly skeletal. “I began to identify with Our Lady as a mother, that she had to suffer through her Child dying on the Cross. I had this incredibly powerful realisation where I saw the connection between me and my little girl, and Our Lady and her Son Jesus.”
A few weeks later he wandered by accident into a cinema that was showing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. “What really got me was Jim Caviezel, playing Jesus, in the tomb,” he recalls. “He is like a runner, down on all fours, waiting for the gun to fire. It’s the Resurrection, and his body is completely recovered. He bolts out of the frame and we see Jesus has triumphed over death. It blew me away. But I still was not thinking of faith or religion.”
Briefly touching on Mel Gibson, Leopold jokes charitably: “Mel has a lot of issues. He took a few too many blows to the head during Braveheart.”
Leopold’s daughter was becoming even more seriously ill and they took her to four hospitals for treatment, but without success. So, they set off for a hospital in Arizona, which had a strong Christian ethos and also offered horse-riding therapy. As part of the therapy they had to agree not to see Gussie for four months. But when she got a tiny bit better they were allowed a brief visit at Christmas.
The night before the visit Leopold was lying in bed in agony, “feeling like I was going to break in half. And for the very first time in my life, I actually prayed. And said to God: ‘I can’t make it on my own. If you are up there, give me a sign. Please help me!’ But the only times in my life that I had seen people pray were in movies, and I felt as though I was praying like the cowboys in the old Westerns.”
The next morning they got up early and strolled in the desert, looking at the stars. A man pulled up on a motorbike. Leopold demonstrates his ability for writing vivid sketches when he describes him as “a tough, leathery ex-Marine, who made Clint Eastwood look like John Inman from Are You Being Served? He had pieced together his own motorbike and used deer antlers for handles.”
Remembering this sudden encounter causes Leopold’s face to shine with amazement. “Straightaway he started talking in a monologue, telling me that his wife, Shepherd, had brought him to Jesus at the age of 33. ‘You know what I’m talking about,’ the man said, looking straight at me. The sun came up behind this man, like a halo, and he repeated over and over: ‘God is watching you.’ Then he left.”
Leopold felt that his prayer had been answered. The chance encounter had boosted his morale. When he visited his daughter at the hospital he saw Christianity in action, because “the staff were genuinely Christian. They were so kind and loving.”
They left their daughter in Arizona and travelled home to New York. One night Leopold met his best friend, David Letterman’s musical director Paul Shaffer, who has been a rock during the stormy times. They were walking down Madison Avenue when a black homeless man in his 30s approached Leopold. He invited the man for a sandwich, only to find the deli was closed. After he was given some dollars to buy food, the homeless man said: “God bless you, Tom.” Leopold was astounded because at no point in the conversation had the man learned that Tom was his name or that he was seeking God. Leopold tried to catch up with the man, but lost him and never saw him again.
Commenting on the biker in the desert and the homeless man, Leopold says: “I’m not saying that theses incidences were miracles, but they were enough to shake me. I don’t refer to them as coincidences anymore.”
Perhaps the most astonishing occurrence was how he met Fr Jonathan Morris. Leopold saw him on television, learned that he had been an adviser on The Passion of the Christ and bought his book, The Promise. Soon after, Leopold was walking down Mulberry Street when he saw Fr Morris get out of a car right in front of him. The priest had just been transferred from the Vatican to St Patrick’s Old Cathedral, near Leopold’s home. The two men came face to face for the first time, and Leopold summoned up the courage to introduce himself and ask for spiritual direction.
After getting to know Fr Morris, Leopold says in a relieved voice, “for the first time in years I felt like I was home, that I had come out of the storm.”
Why did the priest have such a profound influence on him? “Fr Jonathan had this quality about him, that he was so in love with Jesus, that it wasn’t like a belief, but about Someone who was real,” Leopold explains.
The kernel of the faith that ultimately convinced Leopold was that after Jesus returned to heaven the Apostles risked their lives to spread the Gospel. “They were marked men, but they never stopped, even when faced with the prospect of being crucified upside down.”
I ask Leopold if he has any regrets about leaving Judaism. “I can’t understand why it’s not more natural for other Jews,” he says. “It just seems like the next step. That’s why I never had any trouble becoming Catholic. I think that had I been around at time of Jesus that I would have dropped my net, and become a disciple.”
Nowadays Leopold regularly bumps into Jim Caviezel, “the best movie Jesus”, in the Catholic churches of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
There’s been a lot of change in the Catholic world in the last year, and I ask Leopold how he finds Pope Francis, to which he exclaims: “Most hip pope ever!”
Of Benedict XVI, Leopold says: “Pope Benedict had a hard act to follow. It was like going on after Sinatra. But Benedict was a meat and potatoes pope who was right for his time.”
Turning the conversation back to Gussie, I ask how she is. “She’s doing much better now,” he says. I admit to Leopold that, as I am not a mother, I don’t have a deep understanding of his trials. But I am certain that Leopold’s Catholic faith ultimately grew from his role as a dad, and that his conversion is a fruit of his fatherhood.
It is fitting that St Joseph is his patron saint. “The reason that I chose St Joseph as my patron saint was because he was the greatest father figure,” Leopold says. “His wife gave birth to God, and he raised the Child. There can’t be a better father than that!”
You might like to read a fuller account of the years that I was praying for Tom Leopold.
This interview appears in the November 15th edition of The Catholic Herald.