A Writing Family Pt.1 – My Father, Basil Burwell

Basil and Fred Burwell and Friend

Where did my passion for words come from? I think back to my childhood and find many sources, from the intriguing typeface and old-paper smell of a 1920’s hardback book to a dog-eared copy of the mysterious Dr. Strange Marvel comic left around by my brother Jeremy, to the fresh ink glow of a Dell paperback bought at the local department store. As much as I loved reading words, I also loved the sounds of words and so I became a listener. Every night my father read to me as I slurped up Cheerios and scraped sugar from the bottom of the bowl. When I pull The Phantom Tollbooth off the shelf today, I half hear the echo of my father’s booming voice merging with the bell-like clink of spoon on ceramic bowl.

Basil Burwell reading to Fred and Jeremy

Or we’d be out driving, my father at the wheel, my mother beside him, me in the back, gazing through the window at the passing scenes, then –

“Flug!” my father would say.

My mother would wake out of her reverie. “What?” And then she’d look out the window as we rolled past a busy Gulf station. “Oh, Basil!”

A block later he’d intone, “Deeps Timil,” in his rich actor’s baritone.

My mother would present him with one of her patented scowls. “Oh don’t be ridiculous!”

I’d pinch myself, trying not to burst out laughing when I realized that “Deeps Timil” was “Speed Limit” backwards. My father adored backwards words. A father in one of his novels – probably an alter ego – named his daughter, “Devorppa Klim,” which of course was “Approved Milk.” Magical backward words appeared everywhere, even in our own names. Sometimes, his blue eyes twinkling but with a straight face, he’d introduce himself to strangers as “Lisab Llewrub.” I learned that if I ever felt bored with plain old Fred Burwell, I could always switch it around to Derf Llewrub and pretend I was Welsh.

If you wonder where my Tales from a Misinformed Dictionary comes from, it’s the spirit of Basil Burwell perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear.

My father once confessed to me that he thought of himself as an unsuccessful man. That surprised me. How many fathers did I know who could say they’d acted professionally for more than a decade and appeared in films with such oddball names as Park Avenue Logger and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany? But in the 1940’s he left the world of Hollywood and summer stock and became a master teacher, both of the theater and of English literature and creative writing.

He’d always loved to write and he couldn’t resist telling stories. How many times had I bugged him for the further adventures of “Georgie Kleenex?” Especially after the beloved, flimsy character had somehow floated all the way to the moon? He liked to point out that one of his first published stories, “The Flag that Set Us Free, published in the famous Story magazine in 1944, was based on one of his schoolboy stories that had received a C+, possibly due to his incorrigibly bad handwriting. Story editor Whit Burnett urged him to “think long” and in 1954, the historical epic, Our Brother the Sun, became his first published novel.
A Fool in the Forest
, which appeared in 1963, was his personal favorite. It was an autobiographical novel about a young man fresh out of high school in 1929, experiencing a wild summer with a troupe of actors at a summer theater set in an old fashioned amusement park.

When I first became interested in writing, Dad would take my penciled rough draft and cover it with red pen corrections, comments, and suggestions. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I knew I was getting somewhere when less and less red marked up my work.

Perhaps Dad had so many strong passions he couldn’t simply hue to one path. To my mind he was an extremely successful man – a fine actor and director, brilliant teacher, published author, delightful storyteller, and a warm and generous father and mentor.

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. eliseteitelbaum *(Samelson)
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 11:31:23

    Dear Fred Burwell,

    Thanks for bringing your dear father and mother back to life for me. I travelled with them and with you on one of the summers abroad, and played Fanny Hefferwaite in “The Perils of Fanny”. I remember your father’s booming voice and your mother’s lovely scowl. May they live in you always!

    kind regards, elise (samelson) teitelbaum

    Reply

  2. Fred Burwell
    Feb 25, 2012 @ 12:48:43

    Dear Elise,

    Thanks for reading my recent piece and for writing the kind thoughts about my mother and father. I remember you well – in that play and of course traveling with you and the others by “coach” in England and Ireland during the summer of 1971, visiting castles and Stone Henge at dawn. Among other things, I remember getting lost in Yeovil, climbing up to the top of Yeats’s tower, exploring Sligo, slipping and sliding down Ben Nevis with my father, eating scones with my mother in Edinburgh, and playing on the beach at St. Michael’s Mount before crossing the causeway. I turned ten that summer! I hope life is treating you well.
    Best,
    Fred

    Reply

  3. Carol Sparer
    Mar 14, 2012 @ 01:51:01

    What a lovely piece, Fred. It would have been wonderful to meet your dad. And an actor as well! He must have been proud of your work. As I grow older it feels increasingly poignant to reimagine the lives of my parents as human beings separate from their roles as “mom” or “dad.”

    Reply

    • Fred Burwell
      Mar 14, 2012 @ 09:21:48

      Thank you, Carol. I appreciate your thoughts. I was probably in my twenties when I realized that my parents were not only Mom and Dad but friends. That helped me gain perspective on them as human beings. I like to reflect on their journeys through life as I reach my own milestones. I wish you’d known Dad, too. I’m sure you would have liked each other.

      Reply

  4. darlenecraviotto
    Oct 06, 2012 @ 12:52:42

    What lovely memories of your father. Thanks for sharing them. Are his books still in print or available somewhere? My husband followed a similar path as your father’s – After many years of being a professional actor, he also went into teaching. His students adore him for his ability to make the literature they read come alive as he reads passages to them. I’m sure your father’s students felt the same way about him. Actors make amazing teachers.

    Reply

    • Fred Burwell
      Oct 06, 2012 @ 15:18:33

      Thank you for the kind comments, Darlene. I have a few more “writing family” pieces in the works. I’m afraid none of my father’s books are in print, though the two novels are relatively easy to find on used book sites. A Fool in the Forest is a lot of fun for theater buffs. I have some of Dad’s unpublished manuscripts and I hope to do something with them one day, especially a long fairytale novella. You’re absolutely right about the former actor bringing literature alive. I loved being read to by Dad – he did all of the voices of the characters! His passion for words – spoken as well as written – made a real difference, too. It sounds like your husband is a wonderful teacher – what are some of his favorite books that he teaches? Do you ever read aloud to each other?

      Reply

      • darlenecraviotto
        Oct 09, 2012 @ 21:32:13

        I had to ask my husband which books are his favorites to teach and he said, Walden by Thoreau, Huckleberry Finn, and The Glass Managerie. And yes, he used to read to me every night when we were newly married. But then we had kids, and that time was spent reading to the kids. I was also trained as an actress and so we both would use all sorts of character voices when reading to our kids. I remember reading Tortilla Flats aloud to my daughter when she was a 9th grader because she said, “I just can’t get into it, Mom.” I told her that my family had California roots going back seven generations, and those characters in Steinbeck’s book reminded me of friends of my grandfather. I could hear in my mind the way they spoke, and I would do their voices as I read the book to her. I think it helped her have a better understanding of the story. Acting definitely helps someone teach. As well as write!

  5. Fred Burwell
    Oct 10, 2012 @ 16:21:36

    I love those books, too, and Steinbeck was a favorite of mine awhile back. His world always felt very immediate, both real and a little magical. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when you read Tortilla Flats aloud! I read to my son far into his teens – we thoroughly enjoyed sharing books and stories and didn’t want to give it up. I’m an actor only at home, but like you, I always enjoyed doing the voices, since I heard them in my mind. Listening to the way people talk in life as well as in books and films, carries over into my writing, from journal to fiction.

    Reply

  6. Anonymous
    Feb 09, 2013 @ 20:38:01

    I was a member of the Cherry Lawn Class of ’51, & we all recvered Bazz. I remember some of the girl students babysat a son of bazz’s, & I introduced my younger brother to Bazz, resulting in my brother becoming a Theatre Arts Major in college !
    Alan Gross man agrossman3@yahoo.com .

    Reply

    • Fred Burwell
      Feb 09, 2013 @ 22:10:49

      Thanks for writing. It’s always great to hear from one of Dad’s students. Dad helped so many young people develop a lifelong love of theater and literature and in turn they provided youthful energy and enthusiasm. He loved his work. The son you remember would be my oldest brother, Chris.

      Reply

  7. karen goldman
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 15:50:20

    hi fred…i was at chery lawn with jeremy. LOVED BASIL… did some great writing,a nd shared his love of it. i went on to publish 3 books with simon & schuster in the early 90’s, and am writing my 4th. loved him. he was a great influence on me, and told me at age 15/16 i could be a writer. i owe him deepest gratitude with great affection. i went googling for him before. now, found you. love to your whole family… sorry he isn’t around to thank in person. love to jeremy.. xo karen goldman (the angel book, angel voices, angel encounters) 🙂

    Reply

    • Fred Burwell
      Nov 30, 2013 @ 20:36:31

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks so much for writing. It’s always wonderful to hear from one of Dad’s students, who meant a great deal to him. I’m glad to hear that he was so encouraging about your writing – he was always an excellent talent spotter! He helped me so much with my writing, too, and in his later years he did a lot of reading for my literary magazine, Acorn Whistle (sadly, now defunct), and I loved working with him. I miss him a lot, but feel that he’s still with me in many ways, still offering warm advice and nudging me onward. I’d love to hear more about your books sometime – I’ll definitely look them up and will keep an eye out for your new book. I’ll also tell Jeremy hello for you.
      Best,
      Fred

      Reply

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