He Ain't Not Heavy: Exploring the phenomenon of the lesser showbiz brother

Editor's note: The following sidebar accompanies "Voodoo Child," an RFT Web Extra story this week about Leon Hendrix, younger brother of Jimi. Both articles are written by former Riverfront Times staff writer Mike Seely, now managing editor at our sister paper, Seattle Weekly.

It's not unusual for siblings to enter similar lines of work. They share the same genes, after all. But when siblings enter a field in the public eye — be it sports, politics or entertainment — how one compares to the other(s) becomes, well, quite public.

Luke and Owen Wilson, acting brethren who have achieved similarly lofty stature in their mutually chosen realm, are the exception (as are Peyton and Eli Manning). How their brother Andrew compares to them is the rule. While Andrew has scored parts in some significant films — Fever Pitch and Bottle Rocket come to mind — his roles have not risen beyond character-actor status.

More often than not, the phenomenon of the lesser brother takes hold at some point, and rarely loses its grip. John and Patrick McEnroe, Sylvester and Frank Stallone, Cal and Billy Ripken, Jeff and Beau Bridges, Dennis and Randy Quaid, Greg and Mike Maddux, John and Teddy Kennedy, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, Dick and Jerry Van Dyke, Jose and Ozzie Canseco, Dominique and Gerald Wilkins, Sean and Chris Penn, Matt and Tim Hasselbeck, Bill and Brian Doyle Murray, Rob and Chad Lowe, Carson and Jordan Palmer, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Super Mario and Luigi — that one brother has surpassed the other in all these pairings couldn't be clearer. (This phenomenon is not, of course, gender-specific; the same model could be applied to female showbiz sibs, with the Knowles sisters as Exhibit A.)

But special scorn is reserved for the brother who resorts to mimicry, which brings us to the sad story of Leo and Ron Gallagher.

Leo Gallagher is better known simply as Gallagher, the fruit-smashing comedian who first rose to prominence when he took a sledgehammer to a watermelon at a Los Angeles-area club in 1976. According to Leo, Ron, who claims to have had a hand in conceiving the fruit-smashing shtick, came to his older brother in 1990 and asked if he could do an imitation show. Leo gave Ron his blessing. According to Ron, it was Leo who persuaded him to launch his own, very similar, act.

In a May 2000 People article, Jeff Macke, an Ohio club owner who booked both brothers, said: "Ron's show doesn't compare to what his brother does. Ron does the old material. Leo has new props; he's always changing." Nevertheless, both Gallaghers kept robust touring schedules, and even performed together at Madison Square Garden in 1993. But when Ron played Detroit's 2,000-seat Fisher Theatre, Leo viewed it as a violation of their pact, whereby Ron would stick to smaller venues. Leo then successfully sued his brother for copyright infringement, fracturing the careers and relationships of both men. (Through a publicist, Leo Gallagher, who still tours, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

If Jimi Hendrix were alive today, Leon Hendrix would risk being branded with the Scarlet R. But because Jimi died in his prime, Leon could end up more like a poor man's Jim Belushi.

Like Jimi, John Belushi died of a drug overdose at the pinnacle of his fame. But unlike Leon, who didn't pick up a guitar until long after his brother's death, Jim Belushi was already pursuing a career as an actor when John died. When shortly afterward Jim joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, the show that had made his older brother an icon, the move smacked of morbid opportunism. What's more, it quickly became evident that Jim was nowhere near the performer his brother had been, and his movie career failed to take off.

But Jim was not without gifts of his own, and has since become one of television's most durable sitcom stars. And at the end of the day, whatever his failings, he's still the closest thing people are going to get to one of the greatest comic talents ever to walk the earth.

So it goes with Leon. "It was hard at first, but people like me now," he says. "I can play. I'm not fantastic, but I get by. And I write good shit." All in all, while he cops to some psychological discomfort at entering a realm his brother once dominated, Leon says that following in Jimi's footsteps has been "fun."

Ben Savage, the younger brother of Fred (The Wonder Years) Savage who first made a name for himself in the schoolhouse sitcom Boy Meets World, concurs. "I don't think having siblings in the same line of work is an impediment," says the 28-year-old Savage, who, like Fred, has failed to equal his adolescent stardom as an adult. "If anything, it motivates you to work hard. It's like The Godfather — this is the business we've chosen. It's not necessarily competitive."

"If someone in your family has been there before you, great," he adds. "It can give you a foot in the door. The Baldwins are doing okay. The Simpson girls are doing great. Everyone just finds what works for them. I think if you can bring entertainment to the table that people enjoy, people aren't going to say there's only room for one."

mseely@seattleweekly.com

 
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