Five takes later, Frank sits on the floor facing the monitor, head cocked like the RCA dog. "It's not working," he says. He lies flat on the carpet, lacing his fingers and resting them on the top of his head. He closes his eyes. "He's gotta talk it." And although Sachs hasn't heard him, the actor suddenly says, "Lord . . ." in the tone of voice of a man chastising a grandfather who's brought his grandchildren 200 Twinkies, ". . . we don't need another mountain." Frank sits up. "This is good." He laughs and calls a lunch break. Sachs and Frank return to the big table in the performance studio bearing take-out boxes of marinated vegetables, tofu and tuna. Sachs sits down; Frank purposefully walks to the opposite end of the table, clears it, and takes a seat 12 feet away.
FRANK'S VIENNESE mother and Polish father were in flight from the Nazis when he was born in 1939 in Strasbourg, France. They settled in New York City, where Frank's father established a successful shoe-manufacturing business. Frank spent most of his childhood recovering from leg operations and confined to casts and braces to correct his clubfeet. "At school I used to wish I could say I'd been in a train wreck, anything," Frank says, "rather than having been born as though I belonged to another species."
The day before Frank was to undergo major surgery, his father died. Frank was told his father had gone away on business. After his surgery, he learned the truth. He was 5 years old. "My childhood was so hard to fathom that I developed an absurdist way of looking at things," he explains. "It's like when you go to a funeral and find you have to run into the men's room to contain your laughter."
At 20, he suffered a severe illness, and while recuperating he experienced something that turned around his life: He read William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," the story of a good family gone to seed. "I was completely staggered by Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness method," Frank says. "You're going along and then all of a sudden, you're inside somebody's head, thinking what they're thinking."
Inspired to write, Frank attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and then taught at a private high school in Manhattan for 10 years. But he quit the Dalton School in the mid-'70s after, he says, "I realized I'd spent my entire life in school. I was teaching kids whose parents were more accomplished than I, and it was time to move on."
He decided to sign up as a volunteer at the local Pacifica station. On Tuesday mornings from 5 to 7, groggy coffee sippers could hear such distinctive Joe Frank pieces as a mime performing on radio (daring: one minute of dead air), or a wry interview with a bogus Romanian playwright. Then, as now, some listeners didn't know how to take this material. But then, as now, many listeners were hooked.
THE LIVING ROOM of Frank's two-bedroom stucco cottage in Venice doesn't get much light. The carpets and couch are the color of Alpo; the furnishings resemble those of a post-college apartment, and the only nod to 1987 is the exercise bike peeking out of the study. This is where Frank settled after a year in the hotel.
Dressed in a black shirt, gray pants and thick, brilliantly white socks that appear to be brand-new, he sits in a low-slung chair talking about how he's changed in the last year and a half. "I've grown older. I cut deeper. The programs used to be more funny than they were serious. Now I've done these monologues, which are honest, emotional and wrenching. I didn't do that when I began."
He's quiet for a while, then sits up straight. "Sometimes I feel like a voyeur into people's lives. Even listeners might feel that way." He sits back in his chair. "But it's not voyeurism. Because when you look into the life of someone else, you see what you share with them. You see your own reflection."
Frank is holding onto the toe of his white sock and staring down at it.
After a moment, he says: "When I was young, when I was in high school, when I lost my license for reckless driving, I used to try to live my life as though it were a movie." His eyes travel to the dining room table, covered with stacks of paper, most of them transcriptions of tapes. "And now I have no life. All I do is radio. And so in a lot of ways, radio is more important to me than my life. At least for now," he says, still holding firmly onto his foot.