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Judge Michael Rankins • Location: Rohnert Park, CA
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Rocket's red glare
October 17th, 2005 2:57PM

If you're much under 40, the name Charles Rocket probably doesn't mean much to you. In fact, if you're over 40, it probably doesn't mean much to you either.

All right, when it comes right down to it, unless either you're a bottomless pit of pop culture knowledge which I, of course, am or you knew the man personally which I did not, I'm afraid Charles Rocket may not even be a blip on your informational radar screen.

That is, unless you read the news today, and saw that Charles Rocket has committed suicide.

A quarter-century ago, Charles Rocket expended his 15 minutes of fame in a sunburst of profane glory when he dropped an F-bomb live on network television. At the time, Rocket was a member of the cast of NBC's after-hours hit, Saturday Night Live. But not just any member, and not just any cast. Charles Rocket received the double whammy from the fickle finger of television fate: He was the designated heir apparent to one of America's most beloved comedic actors Chevy Chase, who had shot to stardom as the original anchor of SNL's mock newscast, Weekend Update and he was one of those chosen to succeed perhaps the most legendary improvisational comedy troupe of all time the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, whose ranks included budding stars John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray (Chase's replacement in the cast, but not at the Weekend Update desk), Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner.

When the five-year contracts of the SNL cast expired at the end of the 1979-80 season (Chase, who had only signed a one-year deal, had bolted four years previously), NBC brought in another collection of fresh-faced talents to repopulate the show. The early favorite as the breakout star of the group, Charles Rocket, possessed the same kind of all-American good looks and wry-bordering-on-smug comic delivery that had made Chevy Chase a household name, and which none of the other original cast members incredible talents though they were had quite been able to duplicate. Rocket was installed as the new Weekend Update anchor, replacing the tag team of Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, who had made "Jane, you ignorant slut" a national catchphrase.

Talk about being set up for failure.

The problems were numerous. As the original cast departed, so had most of the show's premier comedy writing talent. Executive producer Lorne Michaels was shunted aside in favor of Jean Doumanian, whose prior screen credits numbered exactly zero. And most of the cast, with the exception of a brash young comic named Eddie Murphy, simply wasn't very funny. (Denny Dillon, anyone? Ann Risley? Gail Matthius? Or, Lord help us, Gilbert Gottfried?)

The critics were scathing. The ratings tanked. The audience abandoned ship. Advertisers and network executives fumed. Cast members felt clammy beads of flop sweat pooling upon their collective brow.

Then came the night when Charles Rocket, in the middle of a sketch spoofing the then-popular primetime soap opera Dallas, let slip the one Anglo-Saxonism you can never, ever say on the broadcast airwaves. It was never clear whether the faux pas was planned, or entirely accidental. But clearly, the frustration of unfulfilled expectations and mounting pressures had taken a hand.

Rocket wasn't asked back the following season. (I was going to say, "Rocket was fired," but it seemed inappropriate.) Neither were most of his castmates Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo (no, I can't explain it, either), and Robin Duke being the notable exceptions.

Charles Rocket (whose real name, incidentally, was Charles Claverie) worked steadily in television after the SNL debacle, with recurring roles on Moonlighting and Touched by an Angel and guest shots on dozens of other series and low-budget films. But he never became the comedy superstar many thought he might.

I have no way of knowing what drove Charles Rocket to take his own life the state of his career, family issues, personal problems, or some combination thereof. Maybe no one does.

But this I know: A person who commits suicide by overdosing on pills or slashing his or her wrists is crying out for help. A person who slits his own throat may well be beyond help.

As the man used to say at the conclusion of his Weekend Update stints: "I'm Charles Rocket. Good night, and watch out."


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