Date: February 27, 2007 9:44:57 PM PST
Subject: Re: Alfred Desio, Tap Dancer and Innovator, has passed away
my deep-felt condolences.
In memory of Alfred Desio
from Christian Mueller-Stahl
I remember very vividly the day when I first met Alfred. It was a warm and clear day in spring of 2000. I was searching desperately for a professional tap dancer and actor. I had just graduated from film school and was working on what I considered to be my first real film as a director, a tragi-comedy called Two in Tails about two brothers who were confronted by a world of hypocrisy after they had lost their jobs as a tap-dancing duet in a night club. I already had found an actor named Sam Weber to play one brother but the other brother, oh boy, trying to find him was a film by itself and not a short one I might add. I had searched for him everywhere. I had been to casting sessions, I had visited countless tap-dancing festivals, I had watched tons of videos but nothing. I became so frustrated that I called up the producer and told him that I wouldn't do the film if we couldn't find just the right person. This someone not only had to look the part. He also needed to do be an expert tap dancer as well as actor.
I called Sam Weber and told him about my predicament. He thought about it for a moment before saying two words. Alfred Desio. Alfred who? I asked. Desio, a dancer, tap-dancer, Sam said. Can he dance well? I asked. Not bad, he replied.
By then, I was aware of Sam's talent for understatement.
Actually, Alfred is one of the very best, Sam said.
If Sam says this about a colleague, then, Alfred must truly be unbelievable. Do you think he can act too? I asked. Definitely, Sam said. Do you think he could be your brother in the movie? I asked. Yes, but of course he would have to be the older one, Sam replied. Even tap dancers like to think they look younger than they are. How old is he?, I asked. Late sixties. But he dances like a kid, Sam answered. I paused for a second and asked myself, has Sam had a drink too many. A man in his sixties who can dance like a kid. Most of the people I know can't even dance when they are eighteen. Fine, so, where is he? I asked. Los Angeles, Sam answered. This is going to be difficult, I thought. I would have to convince the producer to fly me over to Los Angeles despite the risk that nothing substantial would come out of the meeting. I could already hear the producer saying "Are you now going completely nuts. We don't have the money. We're making a low budget in Berlin. This is not Hollywood." Finally, I called up the producer and told him the news. And he said, "Are you now going completely nuts. We don't have the money. We're making a low budget in Berlin. This is not Hollywood." Really! Only he said it in German, of course. Why don't you just get someone from here. We can fake the dancing, add the tap-dancing sounds during post-production, it's easy, he said.
Impossible, I answered.
Well, you can't have everything, a great tap dancer and a wonderful actor, that's impossible. Get real. You have got to make compromises, no compromises, no film, period, he lectured me.
Not on this one. Sam recommended Alfred. So, I've got to meet Alfred now. Otherwise we won't have a film, I replied. Finally, it was clear to the producer that he had no other option than to get me on an airplane to LA. And before long I was standing in front of this great dance school in downtown LA on that warm and clear day in spring of 2000.
I wasn't quite sure in which room Alfred wanted to meet but when I entered the hallway I knew immediately. In the background, I heard tap-dancing - click click click. Even before entering the room, I knew this was the sound of a master. He didn't notice me when I entered. He was tap dancing by himself, his eyes closed as if he was asleep. I didn't dare interrupt him, so I quietly sat down on a chair. For a moment, I thought this can't be the man in his sixties Sam was talking about. He was dancing with the energy, freshness and technical brilliancy of a young, tap dancing, well, god! Without even seeing me, he was talking to me with his feet and the rest of his body. I watched and listened to him for a while. Suddenly, it was as if time was standing still and a whole world opened up to me, a world, which combined childlike innocence and great lightness with the deep felt pain of someone who has lived countless lives. The dancing was of such inner transparency and beauty that tears welled up in my eyes. That's when Alfred turned around, opened his eyes and smiled at me. "Oh, you must be the young director from Berlin. Sorry, that I haven't noticed you earlier," he said as if nothing special happened just a moment ago, as if he just came back from a short walk, a tiny drop of sweat on his forehead glittering in the sunlight. So, lets do the casting, Alfred said. Not necessary, I responded. You are it. As soon as I had spoken these words I realized with great fear that he still had to agree to play the part.
Well, he did. And Louise let him travel from sunny and warm California to cloudy and cold Berlin. And that's how Two in Tails, my first film really came into being. Only a few months after I first met him, Alfred arrived at the set dressed in a tuxedo. He decided to bring himself to the project even though we were only able to pay him very little, almost nothing and even though the shooting would become very strenuous, emotionally and physically.
Often, I didn't even know if we would be able to complete the film. During these dark and lonely moments when I was facing questions for which I didn't have the answers, I used to turn to Alfred. I would see him tap-dancing in between scenes or I would just hear the clicking sound of his shoes coming out of one of the rehearsal rooms. I would pause, put my ear to door, close my eyes and just listen for a moment or two. The sound of his shoes would fill me with comfort and an inner calm. And, then, the answer to the question would occur to me, the product of his brilliant tapping.
A screenwriter with whom I'm currently work on a feature film project watched Two in Tails again about two weeks ago. He watched it with his wife and her family who were visiting from Sweden. They asked: So, who are these great actors? In what other films have we seen them? They commented that Sam and Alfred worked so well together, like, well, brothers. Seriously.
My friend's Swedish father-in-law, who is somewhat of a film buff, thought that he night have seen Alfred in a film by Fellini. Oh no, my friend said, they are actually real tap-dancers. They looked at my friend in disbelief. With such a great and expressive face and incredible dancing skills, he was shocked that he hadn't seen Alfred before. He figured that it was probably an actor and the tap-dancing sounds were added later. I received the compliment on Alfred's behalf, but I couldn't really take any credit as it was Alfred who gave so much to the film and me, not vice versa.
I'm certain that without Alfred there wouldn't be Two in Tails and I'm forever grateful for his contribution. Alfred was a great gift not only for the film and the people he worked with, but to me personally. Foremost, Alfred gave me direction, self-confidence, hope. When I needed it the most, he was there. And I'm not sure if he ever was aware of this because it came so naturally and effortless to him. He could dance in his sleep. Be assured Alfred, that I'll never lose what you have given to me and that I'll try my very best to share these gifts with others. Thank you for having been here Alfred. Wherever you are, Alfred, I'm sure you are tap dancing effortlessly as we speak. And I'm sure that whoever's watching him has a smile on their face and is thinking, for a guy that age, he can really dance!
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