Yoda For a Day

Though he's stepped into the shoes of Mickey Rourke, Hugh Grant and Al Pacino, Joe Queenan found that impersonating Yoda, the crusty muppet of the Star Wars films, was no walk in the park. But that doesn't mean that the Force didn't eventually catch up with him.

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When I was a boy growing up on the mean streets of Philadelphia, I dreamed of only one thing: becoming a Roman Catholic priest. There were three reasons why I settled on this vocation. One, by becoming the man in black, I could get myself off the mean streets of Philadelphia and into some cushy nine-to-three job at the archdiocese. This would definitely beat going to Nam or working at the bubble gum factory. Two, by becoming a priest, I would be able to rain down fire and brimstone on my friends and neighbors, and they wouldn't be able to do anything about it. They wouldn't be able to do anything because they would recognize that I, God's terrestrial emissary, possessed the keys of the kingdom, the gift of tongues and many other supernatural gizmos that could be used to make their lives miserable if they tried jerking me around. Three, by donning the collar I would be officially authorized to spew forth a heap-load of mumbo-jumbo and a torrent of cryptic, grammatically suspect pieces of advice and no one would be able to complain about it, because they would understand that I was speaking the word of God.

Thanks mostly to a disconcerting lack of piety, my dream of entering the priesthood never came to pass. Despite this, I never, ever abandoned my ambition to become someone who would rant and rave against his fellow human beings and unleash baffling admonitions without fear of being challenged. That's the reason I started writing for Movieline. Like the Catholic Church would have, this magazine actually has always let me say anything I wanted about anything I chose, and unlike the Church, it's paid me to do it. One of the best things about my long relationship with this sterling publication is that I have repeatedly been allowed--nay, encouraged--to act out my private fantasies and exorcise my personal demons by impersonating various movie stars and movie characters.

Once, I spent 24 hours rolling around in gutters and abusing women in a daring effort to re-create an average day in the life of Mickey Rourke, Man and Myth. Another time, pretending to be the blind dickhead played by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, I cavalierly waded into an onslaught of New York City traffic just to see if I would be run over. (To the dismay of many people in the film industry, I was not.) But it doesn't stop there. For British TV I made a movie about being Hugh Grant. And I have still not entirely given up hope of one day being John Malkovich for a day. (To do so, I would shave off all my hair and speak absolutely phonetically in a voice not unlike Richard Simmons's for 24 hours.)

Despite the pleasure I have derived from my masquerades, there was always one screen presence I wanted to impersonate more than any of the others, and now that the Star Wars prequel is being released, I have the opportunity. I am speaking, of course, of Yoda. This may come as a surprise to readers familiar with my work, most of whom would peg me as more of a Darth Vader kind of guy. They know me less well than they think. True, Darth Vader is cruel, like me; capricious, like me; vindictive, like me; and has a difficult relationship with his son, like me. Moreover, Darth Vader always dresses in black to hold down dry-cleaning costs, like me. But Darth Vader, however perfidious and sadistic, is not especially annoying. Darth Vader is not forever making puzzling comments and snide remarks in pseudo-Confucian snippets bereft of all syntactical logic just to get on peoples nerves; that is the domain of Yoda, a sort of pre-post-nuclear, quasi-amphibian Pat Morita who spends almost all of his screen time in The Empire Strikes Back busting Luke Skywalker's chops and just generally being a garrulous prick. Yoda is the creature I most wanted to impersonate, for the simple reason that he is almost identical to the priest I wanted to become.

To realize my dream of being Yoda, I watched the entire Star Wars trilogy and the two trailers from the prequel, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, jotting down authentic Yoda dialogue and making careful notes about his mannerisms and facial expressions which I then committed to memory. At last I felt ready to spend a day being Yoda: cackling like Yoda, scolding like Yoda, chuckling like Yoda, hectoring like Yoda, getting on everyone's nerves like Yoda. I was sure I was going to have the time of my life.

As it turned out, being Yoda was not the barrel of laughs I expected it to be. For one thing, the populace or Tarrytown, New York, where I live, are quite familiar with my antics and was not especially impressed when I started talking like Yoda. People here had seen me be Mickey Rourke and Hugh Grant for a day, so this schtick was getting to be kind of old hat to them.

"Help you I can, yes, um," I told one friend.

"How's the book going?" he asked.

"Don't give in to the Dark Side," I cautioned a neighbor.

"That movie's coming out soon?" he asked.

If there was anything I wanted to avoid in my exploits as Yoda, it was the sense that this was a phone-in job, that I had not gone far enough to inhabit the psyche of this mystical creature and glean profound human truths in the process. So I quickly realized that I could not continue to impersonate Yoda around people who would quickly figure out what I was up to and not give a shit. I had to take Yoda into Gotham. And I had to do it in style--wearing a robe and leaning on a crooked cane.

One place you don't usually think of Yoda turning up is in Harlem, so that's where I started the next phase of my adventure in Yoda drag. No sooner had I climbed aboard the No. 5 subway train at 125th Street than I was accosted by a bag person asking for small change.

"Help you I can, yes, um," I muttered, forking over a crisp $1 bill. This was obviously more than he'd been expecting, and it was all he seemed to notice.

"Thanks, brother," he told me.

"Brother of you am I not," I replied. "Nice day, I hope you have."

"I'm trying," he responded.

"Try not!" I shot back. "Do or do not do--there is no try!"

He quickly got off at the next stop.

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