I started working with Ralphie twelve years ago and as a couple of former Texas boys we immediately hit it off. Since then I believe I’ve done most, if not all, of his photography. Ralphie accepted getting his photo made as a necessary evil, unfortunately it was not one of the evils he chose to embrace.
He knew photography was not a fair representation of who he was as he had moved past “fat jokes” and had weaponized his voice to comment on social and political matters. Ralphie’s material was thoughtful and reflected an acute awareness of world events cloaked in his "Aw-shucks", high-pitched, southern, draw. He cut right through the bullshit and never forfeited a punchline to come off as smarter than the crowd.
I saw him perform live many times and often at dates just days apart. I never saw a bad show and I never saw the same show twice - that’s about the best compliment you can pay a comic. He was thoughtful, empathetic and warm and didn’t have a malicious bone in his body which is all you can ask of a human.
It’s true that most comedians fall into one of two categories, off-stage they are either witty or miserable. Ralphie was always upbeat and always brought the funny. He could engage in any subject and could size-up the room quickly. Once he discovered what made you laugh he just sat on that button. Ralphie would have been justified to be glum but he just wasn’t that guy. As you got to know him the turmoil that bubbled just under the surface became apparent. Ralphie struggled with photo shoots but it was a respite from his larger troubles.
He had a lot on his plate. Professionally his career was going well. He had been headlining at Harrah’s Las Vegas since January, his comedy specials were highly anticipated, his tour was on fire but his personal life was in shambles. His physical health had taken its toll emotionally to the point where he was diagnosed with PTSD from his near-death experiences. He was separated from his wife and his crumbling marriage had erupted into a very contentious situation. He feared his relationship with his young children that he adored would suffer.
He treated his friends better than he treated himself. Every time I saw him there was an offer to “Come up to the house for a BBQ” (he was a world-class chef) or to crash at his place in Nashville or Vegas for a week. His memorial was held at the Hollywood Improv and was a parade of comics speaking to the heart of a guy that was a cheerleader for them and their careers.
When Ralphie had a new project the first hurdle was getting him in front of my camera. You could count on him to reschedule a time or two and show up late. Every time I saw Ralphie he had put on some weight. He struggled with increasingly serious and frequent health issues and managed to recover from some very dire situations. A couple of years ago we did our first shoot on location and his mobility and stamina were impacted to the point where I vowed to only shoot him in my studio where we could work quickly and relax between set-ups.
The last shoot I did with him was for his soon-to-be-released memoir This Might Get A Little Heavy by St. Martin’s Press. I was asked to photograph him for the book cover in September of 2016, they presented me with the mock-up of the cover where they simply took one of my old photos of Ralphie standing on a white background and wrote Making It Big (working title) on his shirt. I immediately said that I would love to do the cover but insisted that Ralphie deserved artwork that demonstrated a little more effort. Ralphie’s stand-up was well-crafted, intelligent and imaginative and I believed he had earned artwork that reflected the same. I referenced Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip as an example of something with some thought and wit behind it. I had never worked with this publisher before and when I didn't received a response I assumed I had offended them. I realized the project was still in the works seven months laterwhen I was copied on an email Ralphie sent to his manager insisting they book me for the cover photo. Eventually I received the new mock-up where I felt they took my Richard Pryor suggestion a bit too literally but it had been approved all the way up the chain and by Ralphie himself so it was a little late for debate.
Ralphie could only do the shoot on Monday, June 5th. At 10 a.m. we were all systems “Go”. Since it was Ralphie, a couple of hours passed before his manager placed calls to Ralphie and his assistant to no avail. Eventually the assistant called back from a hotel on Sunset saying Ralphie was asleep in his room. We rescheduled for two days later, paid everyone and called it a day. On Wednesday at 10 a.m. we were all assembled again, at about noon I made it clear that I would not reschedule this shoot again. A couple of hours later Ralphie, accompanied by his bulldog Biscuit, threw my studio door open and screamed “RALPHIE MAY IS AN ASSHOLE”. As I went through the reception area from the studio to greet him, he gave me a warm hug and said “Did you hear me when I came in?” I looked at him with a blank stare. He repeated it and I said “Oh, I just thought that was just my inner voice”. He wasn’t a guy you could be mad at and knew if I was busting his chops we were all good. True to form, Ralphie had us all laughing but it was one of those If I don’t laugh I’ll cry situations as he was joking about the very real toll the divorce was taking on him physically, emotionally and financially.
Before we wrapped I took it upon myself to shoot another cover option of Ralphie standing precariously on a diving board as a nod to the issues he faced. I felt it reflected his situation and his humor as well as the title This Might Get A Little Heavy. It was immediately rejected.
We then shot the “King Ralphie” photo with Biscuit which he was using as his new promo shot when he passed. I found it fitting that the last photo we ever collaborated on was used for his memorial invitation.