If you liked watching films in the 1970s, you'll know who Al Lettieri was, even if you can't put a face to the name. He played Solozzo in The Godfather. (he's the one in the picture shaking hands with marlon brando.) A little later on, he turned up as Steve McQueen's nemesis in The Getaway, pursuing him down through Texas to the Mexican border, seducing the vet's wife and throwing spare ribs around the car in a rage because he didn't 'like this game anymore!'
He turned up in other films in that decade, usually playing the bad guy, and playing it really well because he had a face that just looked mean. I have no idea about Lettieri himself, and maybe in real life he was a sweetheart, but if you met a man who looked like him on the street, you wouldn't have trusted him for a second. And you'd probably have turned around and run for your life.
Anyway, as the 70s rolled by, I noticed that he wasn't turning up in other films. This was before the days of the Internet Movie Db, so there was no way to look him up and check his credits. You just had to keep your eyes open and make a note of anything he appeared in. But the absences stretched into the 80s and soon it was less 'What's Al Lettieri been doing?' and more 'Whatever happened to Al Lettieri?' I didn't find out until the late 1990s, when the IMDB did appear and I was typing in names one evening looking for favourite actors. Which was how I discovered that he had died in 1975, of a heart attack.
Here's the thing, though. I had been carrying around an image of him in my head for more than 20 years after he died, wondering when he would finally appear. And when I found out that he never would and couldn't have since 1975, I felt as though someone had pulled the floorboards out from under me. I'm not saying I grieved for him. How could I? I never knew the man.
But I think what happened was this: when I learned he had died, I was still young enough myself for this to be unexpected. As I write, I'm 58 and I've long grown used to the idea that people die and aren't around anymore. And not just people in the public eye - writers and actors and footballers and politicians - but friends of mine. Life is short. And then one day it's over, and it doesn't matter what we do, it'll be over for us all.
For people my age, John Lennon's murder was a shock. How could a Beatle, one of the men who made the music we grew up with, be dead? And worse, murdered? Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all slipped away under - however unconsciously - their own steam. They created the circumstance for their own deaths and so when they did go, that seemed to make sense: like not being surprised when someone you've warned not to carry all those books at once drops the lot. You could see it coming. Nobody saw John Lennon's murder coming.
But that was a shock, not an illumination. It taught me nothing. The moment I grasped that death was out there and waiting for me was the moment I read about Al Lettieri. That's why it made such an impression. That was the moment I realised that no matter how hard we work, how famous we are, how nice we try to be or how many films we can say we've seen or hangovers we've survived, Death's coming down the road in an invisible car. And it's a car that makes no sound and is paying no attention to anyone whatsoever in its path.
© Nick Garlick 2017