by J. Ross Baughman
an excerpt from Angle, a memoir published in 2014
On 15 July 1983, Woody Allen comes out with his movie Zelig, about an imaginary celebrity from the 1920s and ‘30s who happens to be a human chameleon. The character, brilliantly portrayed in mockdocumentary style by Woody Allen, yearns for any and all kinds of approval, so much so that he changes physically in order to blend in with those around him.
Zelig goes off on improbable, courageous adventures, seeming to pop up anywhere and everywhere all at once. He mingles with Hitler and becomes a Nazi. He goes to Africa, and even becomes an African-American. The practice of clinical psychology is another important theme.
The film gathers a good deal of critical acclaim, but achieves only moderate success at the box office.
Nonetheless, the name Zelig enters permanently into the popular lexicon, familiar across the American cultural landscape for decades to come. From time to time, people still tell me I remind them of Woody Allen, but now they add how I seem to resemble Leonard Zelig, too.
“Wait a second!” I’m thinking, in this clear case of art imitating life. “How can someone resemble Zelig? Doesn’t he resemble everyone? And anyway, I’ve been Zelig for twelve straight years before Woody ever introduced the guy.”
The actor/writer/director/producer/auteur is famous for his creative secrecy, but I wonder whether Mel Bourne – who is Woody’s long-time art director, and a friend I’ve known for five years – ever happened to mention to his boss the many stories about me that used Chameleon for the headline.