Old trickster

By IAN SANDS  |  October 9, 2008

Are both men paying homage to Abel in yet another prank? It seems that, this time, their sentiments can be taken at their word.

Nobody gets hurt
Abel, who will be speaking at MIT on Tuesday, October 14, may be a master of deception, but he is not without his standards when it comes to a stunt. He is no fan of pranks that are mean-spirited, or worse, end up hurting people. I interviewed Abel over lunch at Mario’s Place, a restaurant in swanky Westport, Connecticut, near where Abel and his wife now live. He’s almost entirely bald, with unruly eyebrows, wearing a tan, blue, and white-collared Ralph Lauren shirt. Asked to assess a few high-profile TV prank shows, Abel turns almost prudish.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live!: “I don’t think it’s humorous. . . . They’ll do candid-camera stuff . . . they’ll pretend to be a photo shopper developing photos in one hour and people come up and have their pictures come out all black. And they [Kimmel and cousin Sal] put on this act like, ‘Sorry, you gotta pay for it anyhow.’ ”

On America’s Funniest Home Videos: “People are on the ground getting hurt. They broke their neck or collarbone. I don’t find those shows amusing.”

What of his own death stunt, then? Was it not itself a cruel joke?

“It was justified,” says the 78 year old. “The studio wanted to pay peanuts” for his life story.

It took a team of a dozen to kill off Abel for that vindictive prank. Some acted as references to confirm the death to the papers; another played the part of the owner of the funeral parlor where Abel’s body was supposedly being kept (in actuality, it was just a trailer rented for the purposes of the prank); and a little-known actress named Evelyn Jones, pretending to be Abel’s widow, showed up at newspaper offices to urge press comment.

It worked so well that the movie-studio lawyers phoned Abel’s own lawyer three days after he’d “died.”

“But he was so distraught over my death,” says Abel. “They wanted to continue the negotiations. My lawyer, he just hung up on them.”

Tricky business
Westport is one of the nation’s wealthiest communities. So wealthy that in July Money magazine ranked it fifth on a list of “The 25 Top-Earning Towns.” How, you ask, does a professional hoaxter afford to live in such a place?

It has not been easy. At the onset of the 2005 documentary film Abel’s daughter, Jenny, made about his life, Abel Raises Cain (it won the Slamdance Grand Jury Prize for documentary), we see her parents living in the basement of a then-neighbor’s Westport home after financial troubles lost them their house. (The Abels have since found a bigger place in Easton, 10 minutes from Westport.)

Generally, though, Abel says he has stayed afloat, thanks to myriad projects, including eight books and two mockumentary films he directed with his wife, Is There Sex after Death? (1971) and The Faking of the President (1976). Abel, a talented drummer with a long career in music, has also penned 16 musical compositions.

But in recent years he’s become something of a motivator, too, lecturing people on how to solve problems via creativity and wit. (His MIT talk will be in such a capacity.) It’s self-help, but with a sly twist. Rather than tackle such issues as how to make more money and get laid, he helps with mundane, everyday fare.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , John Hargrave, 10-14-2008, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  More more >
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