A prominent obituary in The Times last Sunday took me back to a night in 1962 when I was working the vice detail out of Wilshire Division. We were trying to bust after-hours drinking spots engaging in illegal alcohol sales, prostitution and drug activity. I had been the undercover operator on a recent takedown, and on this particular night our sergeant and one vice team were trying the same tactic on a second persistent offender, this time in a residential area. My partner and I, along with another vice team, were providing backup, out of sight but on the tactical radio frequency.
It was a simple gag: A likely car leaving the target location would be pulled over, and the scared, not-quite-sober male occupant would be threatened with arrest and told that we would need to phone his wife to pick up the car, and of course, we were obliged to inform her of all the nocturnal naughtiness taking place in that after-hours spot. That did it almost every time. As a quid pro quo, the mortified motorist would eagerly agree to take one of us back inside and introduce us as a cousin from Covina, so that the undercover operator could observe law code violations.
Instead of stopping a car that night, the sergeant and his team chose a taxi that had picked up two players from the stakeout address. When it was pulled over, both passengers jumped from the cab like it was on fire. Left behind on the back seat was a bag of pot and uppers — not much of a violation today but in those days a felony booking.
Even then I was having thoughts about a writing career sometime in the future, and I constantly scribbled notes and saved them. As best I can recall from those old notes, here is how it was related to me from the moment both men produced identification.
Vice Cop No. 1 said: "Hey, this guy is Lenny Bruce! Lenny freaking Bruce!"
Indeed it was. Lenny Bruce, the notorious stand-up comic who specialized in obscene attacks on establishment figures (including cops), was standing on the curb and shaking his head when asked if the bag of dope belonged to him.
The other passenger, a tall, fair-haired young man with an upmarket Brit accent, was volubly denying any knowledge of how the bag could have gotten onto the taxi seat. They were told that since neither claimed ownership, they would both be booked for felony possession. The taxi was about to be sent on its way when the tall guy said, "Wait!"
He went straight to the sergeant and asked his name. When he heard an Irish surname, he informed the sergeant that he too was Irish and that he had labored long in British theater with limited success, but that he was in Los Angles to promote a soon-to-be-released movie, "a role of a lifetime," that would make him and the film known throughout the world. He mentioned the name of the movie, but it was no more familiar to the cops than was the actor's name.
Then, in an obvious sympathy ploy, he held up his fist and said: "This hand isn't working properly yet. I was bitten by a camel while we were filming."
He did not garner sympathy from either of the young vice cops. In fact, Vice Cop No. 1 sneered and said: "Role of a lifetime, my tush. Even the damn camel didn't like it." Then to the sergeant, "Come on, let's book these guys."
Vice Cop No. 2 said to the sergeant: "Boss, let's stop wasting time. We're looking at Lenny Bruce here, world-class cop hater. We pop him, we'll be on TV tomorrow!"
Vice Cop No. 1 said, "Hey, Lenny, let's hear some of your pig jokes. Make us laugh."
Bruce stood mute, but the actor lasered his unforgettable blue eyes at the older cop and said: "Sergeant, my career is in your hands. You have the power to damage me irreparably."
And maybe it was the sergeant's Irish name or his watery orbs blinking, but the actor pressed on and said, "Haven't you ever had a human weakness over which you sometimes had little control?"
Chalk it up to thespian instinct, but he seemed to sense that he was talking to a guy who tossed down at least three 80-proof doubles at the Blarney Castle just about every time we were in the neighborhood.
In any case, the sergeant said to the vice team, "Throw the bag down the sewer and put them back in the cab."
And of course there was much grumbling from the young cops who reluctantly did as ordered, and the taxi drove away with the passengers. When I was given these details after the encounter, I too was incensed because the release of Lenny Bruce had cost us all our 15 minutes of fame.
However, I have always believed that Bruce tempered his performances, at least as far as cops were concerned, from then until the day he OD'd in 1966.
As to the obscure actor, everything he said that night came true. And we were all better off for having him in bars rather than behind them. R.I.P., Mr. O'Toole.