Is it cold in the shadow of fame?


September 15, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Imagine living in Billy Ripken's cleats, which are lockered next to Cal's in the Oriole clubhouse. Cal takes home $6 million, plays and plays, and could run for governor when he retires. Billy earns a trifling $250,000, plays when asked, and could run for lieutenant governor when Cal retires.

What's it like having Cal for a brother and friend? Cornered in the clubhouse, Billy answers questions about his famous older brother without saying "Cal." Instead, Billy points with his eyes to his brother's locker. A bow, of sorts. Then William Oliver Ripken says, with a straight stubbled face, that having "him" as a brother is just horrible.

Sarcasm is allowed. Who can blame Billy for thinking, Gee, Mr. Reporter, what a refreshing and novel subject! The Utility Player probably doesn't think much about his relationship with The Iron Man except others KEEP BRINGING IT UP.

"What's it like being Cal's brother?" Billy repeats. "It's better than being your brother."

If he only knew.

The body of thought on brothers is scrawny. Relationships between men and women, men and men, girls and Barbie dolls and men and Barbie dolls have been deeply probed. But what about brothers and brothers? Dr. Sigmund Freud isn't much help. Freud, being Freud, probed sibling competition for parental love, not endorsements. Of course, he never had a big brother forever at short-stop.

Studies do show brothers don't tend to be as close as sister pairs. And brothers tend to be rivals. Rivalry, by way of Latin, translates to "having rights to the same stream." Which brings to mind Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," a book about two fly-fishing brothers. The first thing brothers do, Maclean wrote, is find out how they differ. Brothers, it's also been said, sit across from each other all their lives.

Dr. Karen Lewis, a Rockville psychologist, works inside the brotherhood. She co-edited a collection of writings called "Siblings in Therapy." Chances are she was counseling some brother before getting to her phone messages.

"A relationship does not start at the point of fame," she says. "It's what happened before in the relationship."

If brothers were close as kids, they probably love and support each other when they're grown -- even if one brother's blue eyes are on T-shirts, billboards and milk ads. "If the one who is not famed feels he's playing his best, but his brother is playing super, he's likely to be real proud of him."

If brothers were never tight, well, this is a challenge. But don't tell Karen Lewis that brothers are born to be rivals, born to be distant.

"Men are hungry for relationships with their brothers."

History is stacked with famous bros -- from those bike mechanics from Dayton, the Wright Brothers, to John and Robert Kennedy. The Baldwin brothers act (which one is the young one again?), the Marsalis brothers make jazz, and the Gumbel brothers are glued to the tube. The Wilson brothers will always have the Beach Boys, and the Menendez brothers will always have prison.

John Wilkes Booth was an actor, as Marylanders know. But it was brother Edwin who was a legendary, 19th century actor and a great "Hamlet" (talk about a brotherly theme). Edwin's international fame drove John a little nuts.

Edwin's career was sidelined by John's dastardly performance at Ford's Theatre. Granted, John wasn't thinking, "Let's see, if I shoot Lincoln, that should cripple Ed's career." But clearly, John topped his brother in the fame department.

The Booth boys aside, "A person with a famous anybody always has to fight hard to find their own niche and to discover what makes them special," says Jane Mersky Leder, author of "Brothers & Sisters: How They Shape Our Lives." "And they have to be able to accept the notoriety of, in this case, their brother."

No problem. In John Waters' "Pink Flamingos," Divine nearly runs over a jogger played by the one and only Steve Waters. John's younger brother appears in many of John's movies. He has always pitched in, like when John was charging 99 cents to see his work. "Steve always took in the box office when we were on the church circuit," John says, "because I didn't trust anybody else."

Steve was the "actor" in the family. "I was in a theater club in high school. Nothing exciting, nothing risque." He remembers performing in Boys' Latin School's production of "Our Town." One could only imagine John remaking "Our Town." Grover's Corners would become Dante's Dundalk.

Like John, Steve also fancies black humor. Both brothers also tried out at the family business, Fireline Corp., a commercial fire-protection business.

"I worked one day there and we all knew this was not my calling," says John, 50.

"I heard it was a half-hour," says Steve, 44.

Having secured his niche, Steve still runs the family business knowing there's no threat that John will suddenly get a craving to work with fire extinguishers. "Film is his forte; I run a business. He gets the attention, and I get very little of it."

These Waters boys are just so well-adjusted.

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