Through mutual friends, I knew something was wrong with Casey Kasem.
The last countdown he recorded — which aired the July 4th weekend in 2009 on “American Top 40’s” 39th anniversary — took some 11 hours to complete, in part because he was having trouble understanding what he was reading.
I only recently listened to it on YouTube and was shocked at how tired he sounded, as if he’d just woken up. At times, it indeed seemed as if he didn’t understand what he was saying, and the ends of some words were slurred as if he’d had a stroke (to hear a condensed version, go here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWRd06ekJ0s).
Still, those around him either didn’t know or were reluctant to reveal his condition. It was only a couple of months ago I learned he had Parkinson’s disease, and that became public on Oct. 1 when his children, family, friends, and former co-workers staged a rally outside his home, telling the press Casey’s second wife Jean hadn’t allowed them to see or speak to him in three months.
I saw a lot of familiar faces on the news: Daughter Kerri Kasem, now a disc jockey herself; Gonzalo Venecia, who was a fellow production assistant when I worked on “American Top 40”and later became Casey’s personal assistant for almost 30 years; and the man who hired me when I was still in college to join the crew back in 1984, “AT40” co-creator/producer Don Bustany.
It’s also sad because at Dick Clark’s anniversary party in 1998, I spent a lot of time talking to Jean Kasem. We bonded over both of us growing up in, as she called it, ”island cultures” — her in Guam, me in Hawaii — where you care about your fellow human being and don’t abandon them. She was very progressive in her outlook and wanted Casey to run for public office.
The last time I saw Casey was on July 12, 2006. My sister and her two daughters were visiting from Hawaii, and we sat in on a recording session of the last radio show he was still doing, “American Top 20” (Casey had already relinquished the reins of “American Top 40” to Ryan Seacrest). He sounded fine then. But I guess the decline started around 2009, and unlike other Parkinson’s sufferers like Muhammad Ali or Michael J. Fox, it’s been a sharper one.
When I worked on “AT40” from 1984 to 1988 first as a production assistant, then as research assistant and assembly producer, Casey had so much energy, he literally bounced into the room. Even years later when he read a “Counterpunch” article I’d written for The L.A. Times and left a message congratulating me, no one had more energy. And coming from the man with best voice on the planet, you can imagine how it felt to be the recipient of such praise, support, and enthusiasm.
Contrast that with the dark reports that come almost every day — from Kerri and Jean — on the fading condition of the man who was once my idol, and whom I was later lucky enough to call friend and colleague. Apparently, he can no longer talk or walk. And it’s just a matter of time before he leaves us.
But before that dreaded day, I want people in the Japanese and Asian American community to know what a noble and courageous fighter Casey Kasem’s been for us, sticking his neck out even when it hurt him professionally.
He knew about the struggles of the Nisei and the 100th/442nd. He knew of Asian media stereotypes in general. At an NCRR Day of Remembrance program at the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, he talked about how both the Japanese and Arab American communities had been targeted by racism and thanked us for fighting for redress, as it made it harder for the government to ever intern another group again.
In 1993, he was there speaking at MANAA’s “Rising Sun” press conference and later on at the protest against that racially divisive film. In 1995, he was literally the first person outside McDonald’s on Hollywood Boulevard waiting to picket them for being a sponsor of The Beat’s “House Party,” which had routinely created skits featuring Asian Americans with fake Asian accents.
Later that year and in 2002, he narrated a video I wrote, produced and directed on the history of MANAA (Check out the “About MANAA” video at www.manaa.org/videos.html, and to read about my relationship with him and more details of the campaigns we worked on together, check out my July 2010 column “Casey Kasem and Me” at www.rafu.com/2010/07/itns_casey-kasem/).
And please send your best wishes to Casey and his family.
Network Derby Race Department: As I predicted, NBC cancelled the rebooted “Ironside” and after just two episodes, though allowing a third show to air this Wednesday. It had waaay too much attitude for most of us to bear.
CBS’ “We Are Men,” which featured Kal Penn as one of four guys who became bachelors after being dumped by their significant others or being caught cheating on them, failed to catch on at 8:30 on Monday nights. Its ratings fell from its lead-in, the final season of “How I Met Your Mother,” slipping from 2.0 to 1.8 in its second airing and dragging the show that followed it, the reviled “2 Broke Girls,” down to a series low in the all-important 18-49 age group, so it was pulled after just two episodes.
If you ask me, anything featuring Jerry O’Connell is cursed. I haven’t enjoyed his enormously big face in anything, yet for some reason, he still gets cast as a regular in a lot of shows.
The last episode had its moments, though. The guys tried to steal back a dog from their friend’s ex-wife since, during the divorce negotiations, she was insisting on keeping it. When the dog snarled at Penn, he said it was racist. O’Connell thought that was nonsense. But in the last scene when the dog is returned to their friend, it barks at an Asian family, and O’Connell admits Penn might be right. Pretty funny.
Another Asian in Hiding Department: Last time out, I talked about Chloe Bennet, who’s one of the regulars on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” She’s half Chinese, and her real name is Chloe Wang. I pointed out that when an actors are Hapa, the networks count them as Asian (NBC counts them as half), but if the character isn’t clearly Hapa, then that’s of no benefit to the Asian American community as audience acceptance of the character doesn’t get transferred to our community.
I thought of another example of a Hapa actress using a white last name. Sandrine Holt, who co-starred with Jason Scott Lee in 1994’s “Rapa Nui” and also appeared in “The L Word,” “House of Cards,” and one episode of “The Mentalist” as Agent Cho’s (Tim Kang) girlfriend, is one of the kidnappers on CBS’ Monday night drama “Hostages,” playing a character named Sandrine Renault, which sounds French.
That’s interesting because Holt is the daughter of a French mother and Chinese father, and her real name is Sandrine Ho. Looking at her IMDb credits, it appears the white last name has helped her get roles where she’s usually playing white characters over Asian or part-Asian ones.
On this week’s episode of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” most of the action took place in Hong Kong and Ming-Na Wen greeted both an agent (Tzi Ma) and an out-of-control mutant in Chinese. I was hoping that Skye (Benet) would surprise everyone by breaking into Mandarin or Cantonese and then reveal that she’s half Chinese. No such luck. Turns out she doesn’t know who her parents are and one of the reasons she joined the organization is that they censored a report on who they were, and she wants answers. But hey, who knows, there could be an Asian background in her past yet.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.