In December, I ran into Turtle on the North Shore. We were watching Backyards before paddling out when John Philbin walked up the beach and sat down a few yards away. Under his arm was a surfboard with a broken leash, and on his face was a huge grin. There was no one around him; he was simply smiling at his surroundings. I’m not sure that he was even aware that he was doing it. We got to talking, and a few days later ended up in his back yard, sitting beneath a bright blue sky while palms waved happily in a breeze thick with the scent of plumeria. We talked about a lot of things: life, acting, addiction, and fame, to name a few. “Fame is a vapor,” he told me. “It doesn’t necessarily correlate to skill or talent or courage or bravery–fuck, you can be famous for the shape of your body. It doesn’t correlate to anything.”
As surfers, you probably know John best as Turtle from North Shore. His character is responsible for the most quotes in any lineup around the world. But as an actor, he’s much more than that–over the span of his career, he’s had roles in more than a few cult classics. Point Break, Children of the Corn, Tombstone, and Return of the Living Dead all have his name in the credits, and they’re not small roles. John’s life has been a whirlwind, especially in the last few years. After a struggle with drugs and alcohol, John wound up on the street in a haze, holding a loaded gun. His story (I’ll let him tell you in the video above) is something out of a movie itself, and his courage behind his reasons for telling it is something to be admired.
I’m a big fan of movies. Not just movies–I’m a big fan of stories in general. I have a notebook that I jot down thoughts in, generally when I’m half drunk on a plane somewhere–for some reason, flying and liquor makes me a little introspective–and a few months ago on a flight to somewhere that I can’t remember, I scrawled the following:
I simply cannot bear life without stories. Whether it is having them told to me or telling them to someone else, the boredom of the in-between without the escape of a good story is a load I’ll never care to shoulder.
For what is life without distraction? The wishing, the constant, mindful thoughtlessness of the what-if? Our day-to-day is not where the excitement lies; instead, it exists in dreams, in hopes, in that unslakable thirst for greener pastures. But no matter how green the grass at your feet may be, it dulls with time. Even the brightest of lights fades if one stares too long. A good story gives hope. A good story keeps the future bright.
It goes on longer, but I can’t read most of what I wrote. The idea, though, is that fiction keeps reality interesting. That’s where actors come in. They provide the vessel for the characters who, if the fiction is good enough, become real, if only in our heads. John Philbin is an actor whose characters have become real to millions of viewers around the world. In my head, before that day in his back yard, he was a character, not a real person. He was Turtle, the guy who nobody listens to. He was Nathanial–”Don’t tell me to relax Bodhi! He’s a fuckin’ federal agent!” He was Tom McLaury, the guy who told Sam Elliot that “wearin’ that badge don’t make you right.” As it turns out, as John Philbin, he’s one of the most honest, humble, friendly people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with.
Watch for John Philbin in the upcoming Undateable John, a comedy where “a slacker surf instructor, who’s on and off the wagon, gets his life together when he falls for a beautiful but troubled young woman he meets in Alcoholics Anonymous.” Try and guess what character he plays.