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by Kevin Coupe

I've been thinking about the notion of personal mortality lately.

There is the old saying, "Nothing sharpens the mind like the sight of the hangman's noose," and I think that's probably a good thing. We all face the noose, whether natural or unnatural, at some time or another and in some way or another, and it is good to keep it in mind ... not because we want to become obsessed with death, but because it can make us think more about life.

It is like the line from The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."

I'm thinking about it this morning because 26 years ago today, a friend of mine died.

His name was Vic Magnotta.

I first met Vic at Iona Prep, where I was a student (in the loosest possible definition of that word) and he was taught both gym and communications. I wasn't all that great in gym, but I loved his communications class. He taught film and TV production, and I took to it like a duck to water. Vic had worked in the film and television business, following up a stint with the Special Forces in Vietnam with a brief career as a stuntman; he then turned to teaching, as he looked (I think) for some other level of fulfillment in his life.

Vic was the closest thing I've ever had to a mentor. Despite some personal tragedies in his life, he was the most consistently cheerful and optimistic person I've ever met. He wouldn't accept second-best work from me, and after I graduated from Iona and went off to film school, we stayed in touch. He eventually returned to the film business, working as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, producer and second unit director. (If you've ever seen Taxi Driver, you've seen Vic - he plays one of the Secret Service agents in the film, taught Robert DeNiro everything he needed to know about being a veteran, and coordinated all of the stunts.) Among his other credits were Raging Bull, Fort Apache, The Bronx, and The World According to Garp (he played Garp's wrestling coach at the beginning of the film).

Vic and I even tried to develop a couple of film and television projects together, which, even though none of them ever went into production, was enormously fun and satisfying. (He also, in addition to being the stunt coordinator on the film, was head of security for a film called Somebody Killed Her Husband, which was the first feature film for an actress named Farrah Fawcett after she left "Charlie's Angels." He hired me to work on the security detail for the film, thus providing me with a credit that works as a conversation starter even to this day.)

Twenty-six years ago, Vic was doing what should have been a minor stunt in a forgettable movie called The Squeeze. (You have to pay the mortgage, y'know.) He was supposed to drive a car off a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey, into the Hudson River.

Vic used to say that stuntmen are the farthest thing in the world from daredevils, because they believe in meticulous planning for every possible eventuality. In this case, the car was carefully rigged. Vic was strapped in so that he'd be safe. The car frame was reinforced, and the windshield was set so that once the car was submerged, he'd be able to kick it out, unstrap himself and swim to the surface. There was a team of divers in the water, waiting for him, just in case.

Except that, despite all the preparations, something happened when the car hit the water. The windshield immediately gave, slamming in against Vic, instantly breaking his neck and killing him.

He was 43.

Twenty-six years ago, I woke up to the all-news radio station and heard a report that "a stuntman has been killed doing a stunt by the Hudson River." Somehow, even though I did not know that Vic was working on the film or that he was doing a stunt that night, I knew it was him.

A few days later, the funeral took place in a church that was packed to the rafters with people who knew Vic from all walks of his life. From the film business. From his time as a teacher. From when he'd considered the priesthood. There were former football players he'd coached. And there were people who'd worked with him in various charitable pursuits. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people just like me, who were better men because they'd known Vic, and because he'd challenged us to try new things, to embrace life no matter what curves it would throw at us.

I suspect that more than a few people who were in the church that day, or who had known Vic during the four decades into which he packed an amazing amount of living, did what I did - in 1989, when my second son was born, we named him Brian Victor. It seemed like the least we could do.

In the New York Times obituary, Vic was described as "the consummate movie stunt man. He drove cars off bridges, turned flips on horseback, rappelled down the sides of burning buildings and scrambled up 100-foot masts on tall ships. He was known as 'the Bear.'."

To this day, on my dresser, there is a small stuffed bear that he owned, and that his mom gave me after he died. And on my office wall is the picture that you see, above.

I have no idea whether Vic ever thought about the metaphorical hangman's noose, though I suspect that having served in Vietnam and then being in the business he was in, it had to cross his mind from time to time. But he certainly lived his life and conducted his business as if he knew it were there, lurking in the shadows, and that the time we are given is to be savored and exploited - in the best possible sense of that word - to the fullest.

That's today's lesson, and today's Eye-Opener.

To get busy living, like there is no tomorrow.
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