He made up the lines as he went on, and on

Special to The Times

Al, I've been asked to write about you, the person -- behind-the-scenes stuff people couldn't read elsewhere.

What do I do? I know you want me to talk about your art, not you, but that's not my assignment. Boy, you know about assignments. In your 80 years of drawing -- two or three drawings a week -- you completed about 10,000 assignments. You'd say that most of the time that what the editors want is "sheer insanity," but the jobs pay the electric bill. (You used to say "milkman," but you updated yourself in the 1980s.)

So, to make my editor happy, I'll use what I've learned as a filmmaker -- give a bit of a view, a few "close-ups." But don't worry. Readers won't leave here without realizing that your oxygen is in those deft, steady strokes that glide across the paper, that your intellect is in the characterization of a dancer's arched foot, an actor's scrambled hair, that your laser beam transforms the 3-D universe into a language of its own.

Close-up: You're 81. I've just arrived at the New York Times to assemble an oral history of the newspaper. It was my first. I've always wanted to meet you, and you agree to an interview. I ask: "How do you do it?" You say: "I don't have the faintest idea." I find myself admitting I know little about interviewing.

Close-up: You're 85. I've made a short film for your birthday. I've never made a film before. You say: "Marvelous." Dolly Haas, your late wife, in her grand theatrical manner, says: "Susan, you will make the big film on Al."

You're 87. You ask: "What's taking so long?" You've drawn 238 drawings since I started the project. (If you count people in those drawings, that's 2,141 individuals.)

You're 89. You refer to my project as "the Dead Sea scrolls."

Close-up: You're in your 90s. Scandalous news breaks about a celebrity who's not a friend of yours but whose work you admire. Many people are repelled, shunning the artist and his work. Your stand: "The personal stuff's irrelevant." Later you become friends.

Close-up: You're in your early 90s and are on the upswing after mourning Dolly's death. You say you don't like going to the theater alone, and now your problem is turning women away. Admit it -- you're the most eligible bachelor in town.

Louise, the researcher on my film -- whom you've known since she was married to the stage designer Leo Kerz -- is your date on a night I'm filming you driving to the theater. I can see your hands on the wheel, but your eyes seem to be more on Louise than on the road.

Some weeks later I'm filming you at home, playing the bongo drums you brought back from Bali in 1932. The rhythm you create and the look on your face is for the only other person there -- Louise. It was the clearest telex I've ever heard.

Close-up: You're 96, and you've been married to Louise for a year. "The Line King," my movie, is finally finished and showing in theaters. We tour the country, a merry threesome -- to D.C., Tucson, L.A. You drink Jack Daniel's. We drink Diet Coke. We play a lot of gin rummy. It's almost impossible to beat you, and I'm a good player.

Close-up: You're 98. It's Sept. 11, 2001. I drop in to check on you and get some "wisdom." I've lost my bearings. "Stop watching the TV ... it's pulling you down," you tell me. I can't go cold turkey, but I limit myself. I understand from you that there are boundaries.

Close-up: You're 99. It's Oct. 15, 2002. I'm filming, zoomed in on your stub of a pencil as it lightly finds the face of Paul Newman transformed into his role as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." For three hours, you are arched over the drawing board, Zeus creating his world, stopping only because I need to reload the camera. I am moving all about, nearly sitting on your lap in your now-famous barber's chair. You are oblivious, inking long, graceful lines with a hand steady but aged with lines. I zoom in closer to those lines and the ones in the drawing. In the lens, I see life and art.

The next day, in two hours, you finish the drawing. It didn't come easily. You had to use the eraser often. A document of you making a drawing from start to finish is now done.

The only thing you say the entire five hours -- except when visitors came -- is "don't ask me what I'm doing here; I don't have the vaguest idea."


New York-based filmmaker Susan W. Dryfoos' feature documentary "The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story" was nominated for an Academy Award in 1996.

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