The comic and the writer

By FRANCES ANN BURNS, United Press International

Dan Rowan, best known as half of the Rowan and Martin comedy team, is retired these days, dividing his time between Manasota Key, Fla., and Europe.

He is also a published author, thanks to the late John D. MacDonald, whom Rowan says was 'a father figure, brother figure, one of the best friends I've ever had.'


After a seven-year estrangement that ended in 1981, the two men decided to publish their letters to each other. The letters record a friendship that began in 1967 when someone who knew the two men were mutual fans brought them together. The book, 'A Friendship,' (Knopf, 239 pp., $18.95) ends in 1974 when the two men quarreled.

MacDonald died just after Christmas 1986 at the age of 70 while undergoing treatment for a heart condition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

'I was very happy that we patched it all up before he left us,' Rowan said recently in a telephone interview from his Florida home. 'I called him at Christmas time because I missed him so much.'


MacDonald, the author of 72 books, including the Travis McGee series, was the driving force behind the book -- deciding it should be done and then providing the agent, publisher and literary expertise, Rowan said.

The friendship had ended temporarily while both men were having trouble: MacDonald was coping with theillness and death of an alcoholic sister, and Rowan with a skidding career and a divorce from his wife, Adriana.

In 1981, the two met for a lunch arranged by another friend.

'John said 'I'm just like an old pack rat. I save everything,'' Rowan recalled. 'I said 'Who the hell would want to read our old mail?''

They sorted through their old letters and selected about one-quarter of the correspondence for the book, with the intent to show themselves -- and occasionally other people -- 'warts and all.'

'Naturally at the time of the correspondence, neither of us had any idea that anyone was going to read those letters,' Rowan said. 'In reading them, I was a little dismayed from time to time by some of the things I had said about people.'

In 1967, both were at the peak of their careers. Rowan and his partner, Dick Martin, had just broken into television after years of touring and nightclub performances and were about to embark on 'Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.' MacDonald, after 20 years of paperback originals and stories for pulp magazines, had become one of the best-known mystery writers in the country.


Rowan says MacDonald 'adopted' him, watching 'Laugh-In' regularly, critiquing the show and sending him ideas for new routines.

'Look, don't ever ask me the answer to anything, because even though I know the question is rhetorical, and even though I know I am in one of my myriad areas of ignorance, I am a compulsive adviser,' MacDonald told Rowan in a letter that began 'Dear Harried.'

'Step back in time,' MacDonald said in his last letter. 'I meet a bright, honest, complicated, ambitious, talented, troubled guy at a time when his career is going very well and due soon to really take off.'

But he went on to say that even a saint could be corrupted by the adulation given a TV star -- 'surrounded by obedient, sycophantic, non-contentious, yea-saying people for several years.'

At the time, Rowan said, he was having problems coping with celebrity, with fans who came up to him in public places and clutched him. He envied MacDonald, who could work any place in the world and live anonymously.

'My partner and I spent years in saloons around the country working very hard and had achieved a certain amount of success,' he said. 'But of course a weekly television series is different -- you can't really move around the country any more. John's face was not known.'


Rowan says the letters only partly reflect a friendship that included long telephone calls and visits.

In one letter, written in 1968, Rowan describes a trip he and Martin made to Richmond, Va., where they crowned Miss Tobacco Festival.

'Try and grin for eight miles,' he told MacDonald. 'Facial and jaw muscles get stiff to the point where holding a pipe is a chore.'

He went on to tell MacDonald how the outgoing queen was pushed aside by a camera crew -- 'How long, oh mighty and fickle Nielsen, before I hear those words ... 'Step aside pal.''

Rowan dropped out of TV several years ago and toured Europe's waterways on an old Dutch barge for six years with his current wife, Joanna.

'We didn't really do anything for other people,' Rowan said. 'We were just living.'

Now, he says, people occasionally come up to him and ask him if he is Dan Rowan -- and explain to their teenage children who he is.

Rowan has one regret about his television career.

'I regret not having been on the creation of a series that had a longer life,' he said. 'We were blam, blam, blam. It had to get tiresome. We did run out of things to say.'


He and Martin tried a show called 'The Rowan and Martin Report,' a commentary on current events that they hoped would last longer. The networks didn't buy it.

Now he is completing a second book, this one a novel.

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