By Terrence McCoy
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Lionel Goldbart is an unlikely hero. Working the Lotto hardware at Art Barker's News on a Saturday afternoon, he's somewhat forgettable in his worn T-shirt and shorts buoyed by suspenders, stubbly of chin and thinned out on top, bespectacled, round and a little bit droopy. To anybody who asks, he describes himself as "failed poet and aspiring actor." One might be tempted to label him "disheveled," except that would imply a previous state of being sheveled. But after a decade and a half spent bottom-feeding in the South Beach aquarium, with upper-middle age cloaking his tentative soul like a loose pair of Sansabelt slacks, Goldbart can say he's a man who has scaled his share of life's peaks. Partied with Kerouac. Toked his way to Tangier and back. (Twice.) Rectified the inadequacies of the Gregorian calendar. And as improbable as it sounds, amassed a small fortune playing Jeopardy!
Though his poems are published semiregularly in the weekly Wire and he lands a role every now and then on the local stage, it is the Jeopardy! triumph that spread his fame farthest and widest, and it is Jeopardy! that is responsible for returning Goldbart to the surface of the local culture pond again next week, when he appears on the game show's Tenth Anniversary Championship special, competing for a grand prize of $25,000 plus whatever the victor is able to amass in a two-day, two-match final. The tournament, which was videotaped in mid-October, airs November 29 through December 3 at 7:30 p.m. on WPLG-TV (Channel 10).
Almost all the contestants were randomly chosen from a roster of participants in the annual Tournament of Champions (one name was drawn from each year the revamped Jeopardy! has ruled the airwaves, and the winner of this year's tourney was also invited), yet Goldbart's selection seems fitting -- or fated. Because if people wore their karma like tattoos, Lionel Goldbart would be a sideshow.
We all confront our personal demons in different ways (assuming we have the courage to confront them at all), but Goldbart has made the figurative literal. Jeopardy! seems to be the preferred method by which he tests his own mettle; this is the fourth time he's jetted to the West Coast to play. And he's never done it for the money. In 1985, when he first came to the attention of show officials at a Miami tryout, Goldbart wasn't even a fan of the show. He just wanted, he says, "to make my parents proud of me. At that time I was suffering from low self-esteem." His ego was so scrambled, the Brooklyn-born Beach transplant confesses, that he had trouble answering when host Alex Trebek asked the contestants to tell the audience what they did for a living. "I said I was a retired schoolteacher; I didn't want them to know I had been into drugs," says Goldbart, who had developed an enduring attachment to pharmacopoeia while immersing himself in the New York Beat society of the Fifties and had later embarked on two extended forays to Tangier in pursuit of enhanced consciousness and various controlled substances. The schoolteacher statement wasn't a complete falsehood; Goldbart substitute-taught in New Jersey for a time but lost his certification under unpleasant circumstances. When he moved to Miami Beach in 1979 with the aim of shedding junkiedom (which he accomplished), he got a part-time job as a clerk at Art Barker's on Alton Road. "I didn't even have good clothes to wear," he recalls of his first pilgrimage to game-show mecca. "I had to borrow what I wore to the taping. Roy Rubin A he used to coach the Philadelphia 76ers A loaned me his sport coat. I still have it. I keep everything."
Despite the little lie -- or, perhaps, because of it -- the gods smiled. Goldbart won his initial match, and then three more, racking up $35,000 in cash as a four-day Jeopardy! champ, a victory he says smoothed the way to a reunion with his estranged daughter, Rachel. The gods positively grinned: he was invited to participate in the 1985-86 season's $100,000 Tournament of Champions, where he earned a spot in the semifinals, and an impromptu starring role in a production of a different sort.
"That's the time I forgot to put the answer in the form of a question," Goldbart says in the world-weary tone of a man who has had everything to gain and then lost it.
Nearing the end of the semifinal round, he was trailing his two opponents when he uncovered the last remaining Daily Double in the game. "I wagered everything I had -- $3700," he recalls. "I would have been in first place with only two more answers left on the board."
The clue: "UNTIL REACHING THIS MILESTONE, STALLIONS, GELDINGS, AND MARES ALIKE ARE KNOWN AS 'MAIDENS'."
Goldbart's response: "Until winning a race."
Alex Trebek's devastating news: "Oh, Lionel. You didn't phrase it in the form of a question. I have to rule against you."
And the gods had the whole thing captured on film: Students from the School of Cinema-Television at USC were making Wise Guys, a documentary destined to win top honors for director David Hartwell at a prestigious student film festival. (A brief aside: The festival, sponsored by Nissan, bestowed brand-new automobiles as prizes. From his home in Marina del Rey, Hartwell reports that he immediately sold the Sentra he won and plowed the $10,000 windfall into a new movie, which ultimately led to his first feature, set for release in January. Hartwell describes the movie, entitled Love Is a Gun, as "a supernatural erotic thriller" starring Eric Roberts and Lee Ermy. "Oh, Lionel!" Hartwell exclaims. "That's always been my favorite scene in the film, where he loses everything. Lionel was special. He had told me he came on the show to redeem himself. Incredible.") In Wise Guys, Goldbart is asked after the match about his reaction to the numbing experience. "I don't feel bad," the defeated contestant said. "It's a technicality." The interviewer persisted. "But to lose like that," he prodded. "That must be...." Replied Goldbart: "It's just motherfuckin' money, man."
Goldbart now blames the lapse on bad karma, influenced specifically by his ex-wife. "They had said I could bring a relative with me to the taping," he remembers. "My daughter said she'd like to go. Then three days later she changed her mind. Her mother had put the kibosh on it, I know. That just seemed to set the world in motion."
Karmically, his third appearance on the show, in 1990, was a wash. The occasion was Super Jeopardy!, in which four contestants competed in each round instead of the usual three, for a grand prize of $250,000. The format, Goldbart says, cramped his style, and he was eliminated posthaste. "I didn't have a chance. My ex-wife was putting a curse on me," he says. "She did me in twice. It's always been my observation that you can do somebody in once, but not twice. One week after the taping of that Super Jeopardy! show, she died."
When the invitation came this past summer for appearance number four, Goldbart wasn't too concerned about winning. "When I go on, I can't go on just to make money," he says. "It doesn't work for me. I'm not motivated by it. This time I went on to do the calendar."
"The calendar" is unfinished business: an idea for revising our Gregorian system of chronicling time that Goldbart introduced to TV-land in 1985, amid the get-to-know-the-contestants segment of his fifth appearance, just before he was dethroned as champ by a bouncy brunette who said she worked for a private investigator. (The woman, who went on to become a five-time winner herself, was later exposed as that bane of the game show-playing population: a professional contestant. She was subsequently disqualified.)
"I had referred to the calendar in the background information I gave, but it took me by surprise when Trebek asked me about it," Goldbart remembers. "I said, 'Yes, I have revised the calendar,' and he said, 'What do you mean?' and I hadn't really thought it through, and I said, 'It's really just a completion of the Gregorian change.' He said, 'Now all you have to do is convince all the other countries in the world.' That was it."
And ever since, Goldbart regretted that he was unable to use that fleeting moment to give the world the specifics of his momentous improvement to Pope Gregory XIII's cumbersome method of marking the passage of time. But the masses who tune in next week will finally learn Goldbart's way, in which there will be no need to conjure up "Thirty days hath September/April, June, and November" to recall how many days a given month contains. Instead, all odd-numbered months (January, March, May, et cetera) would have 30 days, while the rest would contain 31. Except December, which would have 31 days during leap years and 30 days otherwise. "It's really simple -- the Gregorians could have done this in the Sixteenth Century, but they didn't," Goldbart muses. "Maybe they wanted to retain power. But a calendar should be as dull as graph paper. You shouldn't have to think about it."
Other highlights and propitious signs that accompanied the trek to California:
His appearance in the first round will air Wednesday, December 1 -- his ex-wife's birthday.
"Both my [first-round] opponents were very, very tall, so they made me stand on a box."
During the taping of the show immediately preceding his, he sat next to his two towering opponents-to-be, and when Final Jeopardy came along, he knew the answer and they didn't (amaze-your-friends hint: What is the Ukraine?).
Upon his arrival, when he turned to the lifestyle section of the Los Angeles Times, the main feature story was written by Irene Lacher.
And what endows that name with such significance in the pantheon of Goldbartinalia? Seven years ago, when Lacher was a lowly Miami Herald "Neighbors" writer, Goldbart returned from the Tournament of Champions debacle and told her about his foul-up in the semis. Though he swears he recounted the incident "in the strictest confidence," the Herald ran the story on its front page on the very day the semifinal aired. "She betrayed me!" Goldbart hisses at the mention of her name.
Not surprisingly, Goldbart refuses to reveal the outcome of the tenth anniversary tournament. He won't even say whether he made it past the first round to the finals. "I've accomplished my life's mission, what I was put here to do," he says cryptically. "Everything went wonderfully well."
It's probably better not to know the outcome in advance. In the imaginary movie we make out of our own lives, we each play the role of the hero. The protagonist to hope against hope for. The one against whom the deck is stacked. The underdog who emerges victorious in spite of the odds, though loss would seem the foregone conclusion. (It is life, after all.) How fitting, in that light, that Lionel Goldbart's contest will be played out for its audience weeks after it actually happened, a foregone conclusion.
And how sweet, regardless, to cheer.