In this story from March 1976, the beloved actor and director shares how he came to understand that he had a special talent–and it wasn't acting.
Posted in , Feb 27, 2014
If there’s one thing I can’t stand people saying, it’s, “I’m no good at anything ... I don’t have any talent.” I just don’t buy that at all. To me, everyone has at least one talent, and while it sometimes takes you a lifetime to find, it does exist.
There was a time, of course, when I didn’t believe that. What changed my mind was a seemingly small event that took place back in 1953.
At that time I was a skinny little high-school sophomore in Collingswood, New Jersey, a town just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. At Collingswood High I was a good student, but as far as I was concerned, in just about every other department I was a loser.
As a funny-looking pip-squeak named Eugene Orowitz, who weighed barely 100 pounds, I desperately wanted to fit in, to be something and do something well. But because I hadn’t found anything I was good at, I looked upon myself as being a total flop.
One sunny afternoon during the spring of that year, our gym class went out to the school’s running track. The teacher was going to acquaint us all with various track and field events. We were shown hurdles, the broad jump, the pole vault. I stumbled weakly through them all.
“Now we’ll try the javelin,” the teacher said.
I watched as he picked up a gleaming metal spear about six feet long and gave it a short toss. Suddenly I was captivated and didn’t know why. Something inside me began saying, “Try it! Try it!”
I had to wait my turn, though, because several others wanted a crack at the javelin too. Shy and scared, I watched them, trying not to look too eager. Finally, when everyone had had a chance to throw–the longest heave going about 30 yards–I looked at the teacher.
“Hey, Orowitz, you want to try?” he asked.
Embarrassed, I looked down, but managed to nod my head.
“Well, come on then,” he said impatiently, and handed me the javelin. Behind me I could hear some of my classmates chuckling.
“Think you can lift it, Ugy?” one said.
“Don’t stab yourself,” another added, laughing.
As I grasped the javelin in my hand, I was seized with a strange feeling–a new-found excitement. Seeing myself as a Roman warrior about to do battle, my fears vanished. For some crazy reason, I was relaxed over what I was about to do, even though I’d never done it before.
I raised the javelin over my head, took six quick steps and let the thing go. The same voice that had urged me into throwing it, now told me it was a good throw.
I watched as the spear took off. While other students’ throws had wobbled or turned cockeyed in the air, to my surprise, my throw was traveling straight and true.
My heart quickened as I saw it continue to sail, 30 yards out, then 40. As it went past the 50-yard mark, it was still going when it went crashing down beyond some empty bleachers.
For a minute nothing was said. Then someone whispered, “Holy cow!” and others began cheering and slapping me on the back. Nobody could believe what little Orowitz had just done.
Neither could I, really. And when I think back on it, the whole scene must have resembled something out of a grade-B movie.
I ran to retrieve the javelin and when I found it, I saw the tip had been broken off in landing. Expecting a real bawling out, I took the javelin back to the gym teacher.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, still shaking his head in wonder. “You keep the thing.”
That night I took the javelin home with me and, much to my parents’ astonishment, never let it out of my sight. The very next day I began practicing with it, and every day that summer–for six hours or more–I would throw it in a nearby schoolyard.
The joy of finding something I could do made me determined to do as well in it as I could.
By the time I was a senior and a member of the track team, all my practice paid off. I threw the javelin 211 feet that year, the best throw by any high-school boy in the country.
That record gave me a track scholarship to the University of Southern California. With my eye on the Olympics, I continued to work out until one day in college, after not warming up properly, I tore some ligaments in my left shoulder.
While I still could throw, I was never able to achieve the distance I once could, and so I gave up my track scholarship and my dream of the Olympics.
Though that was a terrible disappointment, I’ve learned since then that as we are developing one talent, others seem to spring from it without our realizing it. While the javelin gave me a chance to go to college, it also provided me with a new-found confidence and the ability to shed my inferiority complex.
I was able to see the importance of that when later, after I dropped out of U.S.C., I took a job in a Los Angeles warehouse. There, a coworker, an aspiring actor, asked my help in learning his part in a small playhouse production of Home of the Brave.
When I began reading the script, I became mesmerized. The same kind of fascination that took hold of me when I picked up the javelin now turned me on to dramatics. Immediately I enrolled in acting school.
That led to small parts in movies, which in turn brought me the role of Little Joe Cartwright in Bonanza. That TV series lasted 14 years and while it’s no longer running, it led me to still another area–directing–which I’m now using in my own series, Little House on the Prairie.
I’m convinced that everyone has some kind of hidden talent. God sees to it–it’s that simple. The difficult part for some of us is in finding the talent.
That’s why I feel strongly that we must keep our minds open; we can’t let ourselves be discouraged or depressed when the talent doesn’t readily appear. Yet when it does, we must be prepared to grab hold of it right away.
Whenever I think about what made that scrawny kid pick up that javelin, I know there was a reason. God was on that high-school field whispering to me, “Here’s an opportunity. Take it.” And am I glad I listened to Him–glad I trusted my enthusiasm–for I not only found my talent, but I truly found myself.
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