Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Saturday Night's Children: Charles Rocket (1980-1981)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

One of the few truly "dangerous" moments of the infamous Jean Doumanian SNL run from 1980-1981 came from a louche, too-handsome 30-year-old comedian named Charlie Rocket, and it caused the whole cast to be fired, and Jean too. She packaged Rocket as the new Murray/Chase hybrid handsome guy — confident, a little clueless, and able to pratfall one second and deliver straight-faced news the next — but instead Rocket found his style overshadowed by the surprise success of the much more streetwise Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy.

A Bangor, Maine native, Rocket (born Charles Adams Claverie) attended the Rhode Island School of Design in the late sixties. Throughout the following decade he immersed himself in the RISD underground arts scene alongside artists like David Byrne and Gus Van Sant, making several short films and fronting a band on accordion called The Fabulous Motels. He also made several on-the-street mock news reports dubbed "The Rocket Report" and sent the tapes to the local news station, where he was hired as a straight news man ("I guess the satire was too subtle," he told People in 1981). First taking on his birth name then evolving to the pseudonym Charles Kennedy, Rocket continued his local news anchoring career at KOAA-TV in Colorado Springs then WTVF in Nashville.

Before Lorne Michaels ultimately decided to leave SNL after season 5, he asked talent scout John Head to seek out potential new cast members, and Head returned with a tape of Rocket's news report spoofs. Then an associate producer, Jean Doumanian became an instant Rocket fan, and after Michaels decided to leave the show she hired him for the sixth season. In Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Joe Piscopo notes that to Rocket, following the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players didn't seem like such a daunting task, and his attitude was "immediately: sunglasses."

While Rocket anchored Weekend Update and frequently appeared in sketches that season — notably the season opener with Elliott Gould when he introduced himself as "a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray" — his too-cool attitude ultimately proved to be his downfall. Faced with Joe Piscopo's rising airtime dominance and young Eddie Murphy's rising fame, Rocket's response was more competitive than collaborative according to Saturday Night, and his lone recurring character Phil Lively (who acts like a TV game show host in his personal life) and four celebrity impersonations (Prince Charles, David Rockefeller, Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins, and Ronald Reagan) didn't save him after the February 21, 1981 episode hosted by Dallas star Charlene Tilton. During the pre-credit goodbyes, Tilton asked Rocket how he felt about being shot in a "Who Shot J.R.?" Dallas spoof sketch that evening, to which Rocket replied "Oh, man, it’s the first time I've ever been shot in my life. I'd like to know who the fuck did it." Following the F-bomb episode, Doumanian was immediately fired and replaced by Dick Ebersol; Rocket, Gilbert Gottfried, and Ann Risley would all be fired before the show returned in March after a monthlong hiatus.

In the years after his firing, Rocket appeared in a long list of TV series (including Miami Vice, Moonlighting, Murder, She Wrote, Wings, The X-Files, Star Trek: Voyager, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Touched by an Angel) and films (Miracles, Earth Girls Are Easy, Dances with Wolves, Hocus Pocus, SNL film It's Pat, and as the kidnapper Nicholas Andre in Dumb & Dumber), cast most often in villainous roles. He also performed accordion on the 1982 B-52s album Mesopotamia and appeared in three music videos — Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad" (1989) and "King of the Hill" (1991, with Roger McGuinn) as well as The Refreshments' 1997 video for "Good Year." His final film role came with the 2003 LA mob-run poker thriller Shade.

Rocket's steady career as a television bit part regular and big-screen comedic foil ended when, on October 7, 2005, he was found dead of a slit throat in his home in Canterbury, Connecticut; his death was later ruled a suicide by the state medical examiner. "I'm horrified," Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads told the Los Angeles Times after Rocket's death. "I know that Charlie had some pretty big disappointments in his life. The world of Hollywood movies and television can be pretty rough for a person." Whether or not Rocket counted his SNL firing as one of those disappointments, rewatching his F-bomb (in which he sports a now-eerie gunshot wound to the neck) shows him as the rebellious comedy outsider that endured one of the show's least popular seasons and finally put it out of its misery when he uttered The Fuck Heard 'Round the World.

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  • Not Jennifer Gibbs

    "Doumanian was immediately fired and replaced by Dick Ebersol"

    I'm not sure that the "immediately" part is correct. Wasn't she still the producer when Billy Murray hosted the next show after Rocket said "fuck"? I recall Murray teasing Rocket about it in a sketch–possibly the cold open?–and I also seem to recall reading in the Tom Shales book that Murray asked Doumanian if he could host, so I assume she was still the producer at that point.

    • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

      Yes you are correct, "immediately" was a bit misleading. She did produce the Murray episode then was gone after the hiatus.

      • William Ham

        According to the Hill/Weingrad SNL book (which goes into the whole Doumanian debacle in about as much detail as anyone could want), the only reason she, and presumably Rocket, weren't canned immediately was that Bill Murray was already booked for the next show and the network figured the expected uptick in ratings was a good enough reason to wait a week. More's the pity – it's actually a pretty good episode and you get the impression that Bill came in and schooled them a little bit as to how the show is done. They may actually have turned it around and saved their hides if they were given the chance. But then again, all I've heard about Jean D.'s management/leadership skills, NBC performed a mercy killing that March.

  • http://twitter.com/jmush jmush

    Wow, those 3 videos you posted were terrible. Were those supposed to be highlights? I was falling asleep at the computer.

  • Carl winslowww

    He actually killed himself in a field near his home, which I think is a bit more poetic and worth mentioning.

    • Brendan Jordan

      This is what I was going to say. I vividly remember reading about it.

  • William Ham

    If there's any image in the world worthy of an animated .gif, it's that last one. Even Doctor Fink is horrified!

  • Toucan Sam

    The cast didn't get fired because of Rocket's F-bomb, they were well on their way out by that time anyway. Even Rocket didn't get fired because of it, he was told not to mention it the following week and he did on Weekend Update when he asked Piscopo if he said "puck." That was the final straw.

    Those videos are probably the highlights of the season. The skits that year were on par with skits at a Boy Scout campfire.

  • AndrewMilner

    The John Lennon/Yoko Ono Weekend Update interview appeared 16 days before Lennon's murder.

  • Ray

    As a matter of fact, when they returned after the hiatus Bill Murray hosted to do his annual Oscars predictions, and in an opening skit all the new case members were asking for bits of wisdom from the old master. Murray looked over and offered "Rocket: Watch your mouth!"