Alan Abel is planning what he calls an amusing little caper at the Academy Awards show tonight.
The academy is not laughing, not yet.
The last time Abel struck was on the "Donahue" show Jan. 21, when he had seven actors pretend to faint, one after the other, during a program on elderly gays. Not all that much happened at the time, though the audience buzzed a bit and the camera panned away from the dreadful sight. But later someone thought it might be an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, and everybody had to be calmed down. The "Donahue" staff still bristles at the mention of the hoaxer's name.
Abel and the actors he had hired got some interviews out of it. Abel himself was so overloaded with offers that he sent a stand-in to Cable News Network. CNN discovered that its Alan Abel was actually a comic named Richard Crater. They interviewed him anyway -- a celebrity is a celebrity, after all -- but weren't terribly happy about the whole thing.
"I really burned my bridges on that one," Abel said the other day from his home in Westport, Conn. "I thought I had burned them when I put my own obit in The New York Times, but all that happened then was that a lot of people figured they wouldn't have to think about me anymore."
He would prefer that they did.
He has been popping in and out of America's peripheral vision since 1959, when he started a nationwide campaign to put pants on horses and cows and other animals that walk around in public. His Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) made banner headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle and drew all sorts of serious attention, including a $40,000 donation from a woman in Santa Barbara, despite the senselessness of the title, not to mention the idea.
Abel didn't take the money, but he did picket a Fifth Avenue store that had a nude papier-ma che' horse in its window, and his group not only marched in New York's Labor Day parade but also picketed the White House. Actor-writer Buck Henry played G. Clifford Prout, the president of SINA, excoriating the Bronx Zoo as "a moral disaster area."
"I was trying to satirize our customs," Abel explained at the time. "The naive believed we were for real, the smart alecks were sure we had an angle. Hardly anyone guessed we were pulling their leg. I discovered that any crackpot group, so long as it sounded official, could put pressure on any important organization in the United States and scare hell out of them."
He finds he has to explain all his hoaxes, which depresses him. "We Americans do take ourselves so seriously," he says. "I walked into a room once and all conversation stopped and people looked at me suspiciously. So I stamped on the floor. Everybody jumped a foot in the air. People are so scared, so constipated, in America these days. No one's having a good time."
The explanation of the "Donahue" episode was that Abel hopes to "raise the consciousness of TV and maybe bring back real live TV with all its mistakes and surprises. None of this 'live on tape' silliness. I wanted to put some excitement and life into it. Also, it was kind of like giving a hotfoot to the pope."
In 1971 Abel landed a flying saucer at Asbury Park, N.J., complete with two guys in phosphorescent suits. Two years later he set up a Washington press conference for a "call girl" who claimed to be servicing judges, politicians and various Watergate conspirators, including "a Mr. Dean."
The reporters bit instantly. "Would that be John W. Dean III?" they asked eagerly.
The siren stirred languorously and delivered the punch line.
"They're all Johns to me," she sighed.
The masked, miniskirted blonde turned out to be an actress named Iris Brooks who had starred in Abel's film "Is There Sex After Death?"
Abel says he grossed $3 million on the picture and plans to put it on tape for home consumption this summer. He now wants to make a movie that will "have something in it to offend everyone, everywhere." It seems to be related to his lifelong theme, a protest against censorship.
Then there was the time he ran his wife Jeanne for president as "Yetta Bronstein, Bronx housewife," and his International Sex Bowl, and the phony official at Super Bowl XVII, and the press conference to announce the marriage of Idi Amin, and the time he got mad because the swish Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York wouldn't let him, a nonguest, use the bathroom and so he set up a portable toilet on the sidewalk labeled "Public People Pooper."
"Everyone thinks I must be a rich eccentric, but it's not true. I'm not in it for money. I make my living writing and lecturing. I have a book out on how to thrive on rejection."
For a four-figure fee he will appear at a convention as a consultant who talks in the appropriate jargon but gradually gets wilder and wilder, with his charts and slides, until even the dullest mind realizes something is very wrong. Once he had executives at a TV convention twisting themselves into ballet positions in the belief that they were learning a new golf swing.
People like Abel and Jim Moran (the man who sold refrigerators to Eskimos) and the late Harry Reichenbach (who turned a fan on an empty aquarium and got people to believe there were invisible fish in it) are an endangered species, he says. "Everybody wants to know what the gimmick is, what's the money angle, but there isn't any. It's just for the fun of it. I think my work benefits people, and I can't understand why I haven't gotten a MacArthur grant yet."
Now 48 -- "I'm not going to admit to any more, because if people think you're senile they get out the net" -- Abel relaxes by taking his 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer, trick-or-treating on Halloween around the neighborhood. Last year they showed up as plumbers and talked their way into the homes of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Rodney Dangerfield and Paul Newman.
"My wife tolerates me," he says. "After all, she knows that anytime I get out of hand she can have me committed without any trouble at all."
He has been doing this since he got out of Ohio State. Curiously, it never occurred to him as a kid back in Coshocton, Ohio. "Andy Hay was the big practical joker there. He ran our French teacher, Harrison Rose, ragged with the stuff he did. I was always in awe of him. He's a stockbroker now."
As for himself, Abel likes to think he is more grasshopper than ant. "I don't even have an IRA," he mutters. "When the time comes I'll call a taxi driver and give him a shovel and a bag of lime and tell him to take me to the nearest potter's field."
He won't say what he plans for Academy Awards night, only that it will be nonviolent, and like all his stunts this one has been run past his lawyer.
The only question is, how will we recognize which foolishness is his?