From the Archives: A Conversation with the Late, Great Mime Joe McCord
To mark the passing yesterday (April 28, 2023) of the famed mime Joe McCord, ala "Merlin," after a long and courageous battle with cancer, I am republishing a post I originally wrote on this site in July of 2016 when I had the chance to meet Joe in California.
While in Redondo Beach over the Fourth of July weekend visiting my son during his summer internship, I was sitting at the Starbucks when a man sat down across from me and introduced himself as the famed mime, actor and screenwriter Joseph Lennon McCord.
I admit to not knowing who Joe was at first and I found myself furiously Googling his name as he told me his story.
Joe didn’t care. He was as friendly and down to earth as an uncle at a clam bake.
If you were a fan of rock music in its heyday, you likely knew Joe and saw his act.
In the 60s and 70s, he traveled the world performing the warm-up mime show for such legendary rock bands as The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Van Morrison.
Joe developed a performance style that he called “pantozime,” which blended mime with music and satire. Without saying a word, his mime acts cut through politics and social norms to make a statement about the world we live in.
He was good friends with legendary musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan. Hendrix called him a “musician in silence” and gave him gifts including a jade ring, which was stolen some years ago.
For a man who didn’t speak while on stage, McCord had plenty of stories to tell me of his colorful life. I just sat rather slack-jawed taking it all in.
As a child he didn’t speak until he was six. One day his mother took him to see the silent film “City Lights” with Charlie Chaplin.
“I was mesmerized,” Joe related. “After the movie I wouldn’t stop talking and my mother and her friends were amazed – here’s this kid who didn’t speak and now he’s talking up a storm. She asked me why I didn’t speak before and I told her – because I didn’t have anything to say!”
Before long, Joe was doing mimes – and doing them so well, he was up on stage doing performances that helped his family pay the mortgage.
In his twenties he studied under the famed French director and mime artist Jean Louis Barrault, who picked Joe from aspiring mimes from around the world to be his student.
His career took a huge turn when Lenny Bruce saw him perform, took him back stage afterward, and encouraged him to use his talents not just for entertainment but for social satire.
With Bruce’s support, Joe’s career went big time. He got the attention of people like Hendrix and Garcia, who became his close friend.
Musicians took to him, Joe explained, not only because he appreciated music (“I have perfect pitch,” he explained, “which I got from my father”) but because they saw he was no threat to them.
“They saw me as this kind of everyman guy,” Joe said. “I loved music but couldn’t play an instrument and wasn’t going to compete with them. So they opened up to me.”
Joe’s work was strongly influenced by the peace movement during the 60s and 70s. Despite being strongly anti-war, he decided to enlist in the Vietnam War so that he could better understand what he was crusading against. He spent a year in Vietnam and still bears the scar on his face from a bouncing Betty bomb that nearly killed him.
His mime acts took him to all but seven countries in the world. Before performances, he would visit the country in advance to gather material that he would use in his performances.
He met Janis Joplin after one of his performances. She liked him so much, Joe related, that she took him home with her. They had a three-week affair. (Joe’s most vivid memory of Janis is her lying naked at the base of his bed regaling him with an a capella version of “Ball and Chain”).
Along with famous musicians, he was friends with writers like Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Tom Wolfe. McCord is believed to be the basis for the character Merlin in Wolfe’s novel “Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test.”
Joe also calls many famous actors his friends. He has acted alongside of the likes of Al Pacino and Melissa Leo, who starred in McCord’s 2015 short film “The Butterfly, The Harp and The Timepiece.”
The film also starts Joe’s son Orpheo McCord, who has followed in his father’s footsteps into the entertainment business. Orpheo is percussionist in the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (writers of the hit song “Home” and many others).
It was through late actor Walter Matthau that Joe got a chance to meet his idol Charlie Chaplin a few years before Chaplin’s death. Chaplin, who was in his eighties at the time, taught McCord something he never forgot about the business of entertainment.
“Charlie said that we are fountains and people love to drink.”
Now in his seventies, Joe lives on a houseboat in Redondo Beach, California. Despite battling prostate cancer, he continues to write and act.
He recently wrote a children’s story named Where Do Socks Go?, which seeks to resolve the ageless question of what happens to your favorite pair of socks when they go missing. The book gets great reviews on Amazon.
He’s also working on his memoir, to be titled “The Mime Speaks,” with publisher Jorvik Press.
Fame has not brought Joe McCord riches. His friends and supporters are running a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to cover Joe’s upcoming cancer surgery. The Remedy Revival is also organizing a benefit music festival for Joe in late August in Lowell, Maine.
Still, Joe wouldn’t change a thing about his life. Despite being in pain from his cancer, he exudes peace and warm. He is a peaceable man.
“I’ve had a good life. I’ve lived it the way I wanted to.”
Being normal shouldn’t be a goal, Joe told me. Who wants normality? The goal, he said, should be to be “near-mal” – near normal.
All of Joe’s stories will be in his memoir, assuming it gets published.
I, for one, hope it does, because I want to read it.