Bill Rocz, the movie critic and celebrity interviewer for KPHO-TV, died last week after an excruciatingly long struggle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
A well-known and -liked Arizona media personality, the on-air Rocz epitomized wholesomeness as a sort of dapper, toupeed, mellifluous square. Hosting KPHO's Hollywood Greats and Family Classics, he was a forerunner of the church-usher types who now introduce films on cable's American Movie Classics.
But those who knew Bill Rocz offscreen fully understood that sly humor and unbridled naughtiness defined his personality far better than did wholesomeness.
For me, it was hard to reconcile the guy seated in the cozy faux living-room production set--who so pleasantly introduced Oh, Heavenly Dog! or Singin' in the Rain--with the caustic, ornery reprobate who charmed my wife just after he'd been fitted with a catheter, by telling her that even though he had a pipe cleaner up his dick, he still lusted for her in his heart.
Among fellow movie reviewers, he was famous for poking fun at film-industry promotional gambits. He infuriated the former smut princess Traci Lords on a Cry-Baby press junket by profusely complimenting her on her early porno work. Later, he elicited obscenities from the Coen brothers by asking them what his motivation was supposed to be while filming his guest spot as a TV anchor in Raising Arizona.
In the last year or so of his life, I was among a handful of friends who saw Bill regularly. Every Wednesday afternoon, he and I watched old movies on video, mostly serials, from his dizzyingly huge collection.
Confined to a wheelchair and his speech made difficult from pain, Bill still insisted on sharing his anecdotal history of movie ephemera. Looking at a burly actor playing a thug in a '40s action picture, he'd tell me how the man--Fred Graham--went on to be John Wayne's stunt double until the Duke's death, then had moved to Phoenix to head the film office here.
Bill Rocz had it in him to be short-tempered, sarcastic and anal-retentive. And he would probably hate it that I also admit to having seen his lovable side. There is something lovable about a person who enjoys being who he is--in Bill's case, a privileged local celebrity. Insisting that he'd had so much fun in the early part of his life that his illness was an unsurprising karmic repercussion, he endured a horrible disease with a mixture of cheerfulness and sick humor that seemed to me truly heroic.
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A while back, Krista Griffin, manager of Valley Art Theatre, set up a special screening for him of Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, apparently the only cult classic Bill had never seen. I had seen it, and a few minutes into the picture I was mortified to remember that the villain was a bitter, wheelchair-bound old coot who gets mowed down by a car. I was tense as that scene neared, but when Bill saw the crippled old man go flying across the desert, he howled with laughter.
Another evening, after a screening, I was pushing Bill out of the men's room at Harkins Arcadia 8, when a man we didn't know kindly held the door for us. Bill thanked him, and the guy, apropos of nothing, said, "No problem, my father died last year." After the awkward pause that followed, Bill pleasantly asked, "Is there anything you'd like me to tell him?"
Not long after, we were watching a horror picture called Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions. It was a dumb film, but it had an unusually lyrical final line that made Bill chuckle: "Flesh is a trap. Flesh is a trap, and magic sets us free."
Bill Rocz knew well how cruel a trap flesh could be. But he seemed to have a bit of magic, too.