Remembering PJ Torokvei: Comedy Genius Behind 'WKRP' Was Transgender Trailblazer
The two funniest people I have ever known were John Candy and PJ Torokvei.
They were both famous alums from the Toronto comedy club known as Second City. John performed at the Second City theater in downtown Toronto, as did PJ. Later on John became a household name by creating some of the most memorable SCTV characters. PJ was a performer and writer for the Toronto Improv company (and for John) and later wrote on the television series in 1981.
I was lucky enough to meet them both in 1993 when ICM agent Jim Wiatt sent John my way to produce a television movie project John wanted to direct. He had an OK script from two young writers (one of which was his personal assistant) and wanted my help in setting it up as his directorial debut. By the time I met John, he was already a big movie star, having appeared in Home Alone and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I was tickled to have his project come my way and immediately set it up at Fox Television as a Fox Original Film to premiere on their network in the Spring of 1994.
To get a production order on this project (entitled Hostage for a Day), we’d need a rewrite -- someone to turn a 100-page feature screenplay into a seven-act, 95-page television script. Oh -- and they'd have to make it funnier, too. John knew just the person for the job: PJ Torokvei, known by Peter in those days. And thus began our-six month collaboration.
PJ had pretty impressive comedy credentials, too. Second City, then SCTV, head writer on WKRP in Cincinnati and then movies, including Real Genius, Caddyshack 2, and Armed & Dangerous.
PJ and John didn't just write funny; they knew funny. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen are reputedly quoted as saying, You can't teach funny; you have to be born funny. Anyone who spent even five minutes around PJ or John saw the truth in that. They could take any scene -- even a scene that to me wasn't funny at all -- change a line, change the screen direction, add a prop and BOOM, it was really funny. I was constantly reminded of Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys monologue about what is funny (“Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Tomato is not funny. Roast beef is not funny.”) With John as the director and PJ as his collaborating writer (and actor in his troupe), they were constantly making each other -- and the rest of us -- laugh. And they both knew that the best humor came from truth and real emotion.
By the time I met PJ, sobriety was a constant issue. One day on set, when discussing PJ's disinterest in having a beer after we wrapped, I was told the following, which I have never forgotten: “We're all given a certain amount of alcohol to consume in a lifetime. As it happens, I just drank all mine before I was 30.” PJ was 41 when we met.
Hostage for a Day was the single most entertaining production I have ever worked on (and I’m up to 50 movies at this point). We edited the film in Toronto while John was shooting Canadian Bacon, and PJ kept feeding us new lines to give us bigger and better laughs. Shortly before Christmas in 1993, we mixed the movie in Toronto and made plans for a big premiere and party when the film would air in April on Fox. We all went our separate ways -- John home to his wife and two small kids on a farm outside Toronto; PJ to two teenage kids in Ojai, California; and me to two young sons under the age of 3 in Los Angeles.
On a warm Friday the following March, my phone rang before breakfast. It was my friend Bobby Newmyer, who was producing a movie in Durango, Mexico. The film was Wagon’s East and John was playing one of the title roles. Bobby had bad news. John had gone to bed Thursday night and never woke up. John was 43. We never had that big party. Nor that big premiere. PJ and I watched the film with our families. PJ and I became closer after losing John, who was for PJ a lifelong friend and for me, a recent friend and collaborator. We had more movies planned. More audiences to make laugh and cry.
PJ appeared in another film for me that year, a thriller with Jennie Garth and Billy Dee Williams for CBS. It was really just an excuse for us to hang out together in Toronto when I was away from my family producing another film. Nobody could make me laugh like PJ. In '94 I hired PJ to write the story of Annette Funicello's life (A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes) and his draft got us a production order. We shot that film in '95. PJ then went off to write a movie for Shirley MacLaine (the very underrated Guarding Tess).
Late one night in 2001, I was at home sorting through a stack of mail. My wife and kids were asleep upstairs. I grabbed a handful of Wheat Thins and sat down to open up the awaiting bills and letters. At the bottom of the stack was a letter addressed to me, my name scribbled across the nondescript Avery envelope in a handwriting I knew was familiar. I tore it open to find a letter with "Torokvei" lettered across the top. It was a Xerox of a letter addressed to something akin to "My Closest Friends and Family." What followed was a (not surprisingly) clever and pithy letter announcing the arrival of our friend's 50th birthday. The voice was unmistakably PJ's, and I was laughing immediately.
About halfway through the letter, PJ announced that he -- to that point known to us as Peter -- had made a very difficult decision. He was choosing to go public with the secret that he'd always felt trapped -- as a female in a man's body -- and that he planned to have surgery to change his sex. At this point, I thought I was reading the cleverest 50th birthday letter of all time. Somewhere soon would arrive a punchline to really make me split my sides.
That punchline never came.
What followed was a very painful and frank admission about Peter's life to that point and his grave fears about what this decision would mean to his children, friendships and career. For the first time ever, the born funny Mr. Torokvei was not making me laugh. I ran upstairs to find my wife and have her read the letter and confirm for me that this was for real. After reading it, she looked up and said, "Well, have you called him?"
“But it's like 10 o'clock at night.”
“Really? Can you imagine what he's been going through knowing that letter is out there? That his friends are reading it? Call him now.”
She was right. Sitting on the edge of our bed, I dialed his number. Peter answered. We laughed and cried. He made a joke about the misfortune of having the name Peter and wanting to lose his male appendage. He told me I was one of the first to call. We laughed some more.
Peter informed me that he had to live as a woman for a year before a surgeon would do the operation. We talked often that year. We even pitched a movie to Showtime with his former writing partner from WKRP. With each subsequent visit Peter was transforming. And it wasn't easy. Long hours of electrolysis, heavy doses of hormones. Pierced ears. Learning how to put on fake eyelashes. I heard it all, and always with humor. I began to understand the painful double life he led to this point. At one juncture, I asked him, “Why not just be gay and come out of the closet?” Peter's answer was all too obvious and drove home his anguish.
“If only it was that easy. I wish I could do that. I'm not a man. I'm not attracted to gay men. No more than heterosexual women are attracted to them.”
I had my “a-ha moment.”
I spoke to Peter a few days before the surgery. She was anxious, worried most about her kids and ready to have it be over. I asked her if she thought she'd be an attractive woman of a certain age. And with her characteristic humor she replied, “I was hoping for Christie Brinkley, I fear I'm heading toward Bea Arthur.”
We chatted again the week after her surgery. Peter was now PJ -- and living on pain meds. I asked her how she felt -- and I dared to ask her what it looked like down below. She said she only looked under the gauze once and it bore an eerily resemblance to the back end of a baboon. I spit up my food. To this day I still think of that description and bust up laughing.
Later that month, PJ and I went to lunch at La Scala in Brentwood. I remember holding the door open for her and both of us smiling at the moment, an unspoken understanding of its significance. We had a great meal, plotting new stories and adventures we wanted to tell, and retelling old ones that still made us smile. Despite her bravura performance to the contrary, underneath the Mary Kay makeup, Maybelline mascara and long blonde locks, I saw a deep sadness and dread I hadn't seen before.
Some of PJ's friends from the Second City days and family members had turned their backs on her during this transition. Some never called again after reading the 50th birthday letter.
We talked many times that year as PJ decided to retreat into the privacy of her home and then eventually move up to a farm in Victoria, a return to her native Canada. Most of the correspondences from that point were via e-mail, her rapier wit still ever-present, even as they became fewer and farther apart. There were rumors that her friend Martin Short had put together a collection to auction off her newfound virginity. That could have been an urban myth -- perhaps even fostered by Ms. Torokvei.
While I could never hope to understand the pain and sadness PJ experienced, I learned that friendship can come in any shape, size or color. And that my friend PJ was no different than my friend Peter.
PJ had complications from the surgery and spent a fair amount of time in the hospital, which tended to make her sicker, not healthier. We spoke last year and made plans to get together in a few months, but that date kept getting postponed. I never saw her.
PJ Torokvei passed away last Wednesday at home in hospice care, surrounded by friends and family. I spoke to her son on July 4th, both of us honoring the memory of a special kind of independence on Independence Day. Somewhere beyond the pearly gates, John and PJ are joking and laughing, and taking a quick gander at her baboon down below.
I miss her.