All by himself, Rick Rosner is a few of my favorite things.
In 1986, the story of his life thus far constituted my first Westword feature. He had just won second place in Omni magazine's Smartest Man in America contest, which he aced by completing a long quiz of which I could answer not one question. The only person who beat him was John Sununu, then the governor of New Hampshire. Like Sununu, Rick had a prodigious IQ and was well-versed in a number of academic subjects. Unlike Sununu, he was a self-proclaimed headcase, an attention-grabber who roller-skated around his hometown of Boulder dressed only in animal skins, wore pink bunny slippers when he lifted weights, and stripped at the Bus Stop (his getup there -- however briefly -- was a flaming paper suit). It wasn't just that Rick did all of this, but that he did it with an admirable zeal for rejection: His audiences for these exhibitionistic acts never seemed to think much of him, or so he told me.
But I liked Rick from the start. He was quick-witted, unboring and a master of creative self-flagellation, and I seldom turn down the chance to hang with a master of anything. So over the years, Rick and I have remained sporadically in touch.
After he left Boulder in the late '80s, Rick moved to Albuquerque, where he faked his way onto a high school football team. He repeated this high school trick several times in different cities, falsifying all the right documents and regressing emotionally to the appropriate age level. Once during this reinvented-teenager period, he popped by our office dressed in a football letter jacket, with braces on his teeth and a physical awkwardness that he'd invented and perfected until he performed it with Astaire-like grace (or lack thereof). I thought of this alter ego as Ricky. Ricky didn't finish sentences or make eye contact, and he may even have had zits.
Ricky was 29 when he completed his final, final high school semester at the Manhattan Center for Science and Math in New York City, where he'd moved with a girlfriend who was posing as his legal guardian on the off chance that school authorities got suspicious. (Don't even ask what had happened to his "parents." The real ones were leading their regular lives back in Boulder and Albuquerque.) During that same year, Rick worked first as an intern, then for pay, on MTV's Remote Control game show, slam-dunking the art of the televised wise-ass trivia question. Whenever I saw the show, I recognized his style.
My next Rick Rosner update came in the form of a rather traditional wedding invitation. He was marrying Carole, his "legal guardian," and had moved to Los Angeles. And there, while he still moonlighted as a stripper and a bouncer, he concentrated most of his energies on show business.
"I've squandered a big chunk of my life," Rick says. "I wrote for VH1's My Generation, I worked on clip shows for Fox -- including the World's (as opposed to America's) Funniest Home Videos. I'm not at the top of the business, by any means. Right now I'm working on the Web component of The Man Show, which basically showcases obnoxious male behavior, dirtiness and whatever we can get away with, which is exactly what you'd expect. I specialize in pure filth."
Pure, genius-level filth. Rick is quick to point out that his agent went to Oxford and that plenty of Harvard boys also write pure filth. The brain, it would seem, is a dubious accessory in Hollywood. Carole, for example, recently quit working because of "bad, show-bizzy, horrible, dictatorial petty crap," Rick relates.
Now she stays home with the couple's five-year-old daughter. "Our daughter is pretty cool, and I'm part of a nice family," Rick says, a little amazed.
Sometimes he thinks that being married and having a wonderful family has caused him to lose his touch for debasing acts. But then he remembers his obsession with hair transplants. Between 1989 and 1997, Rick had four sets of hair plugs installed on a head that he claims was balding, but who can say? All told, a quartet of "specialists" worked to implant a total of 1,650 tufts, all with delicious medical side effects. For instance, if you pick off a peroxide-coated scab and throw it...Oh, never mind. Rick also enjoys spotting plugs at the gym and discussing them with guys who are thinking that a hair transplant would be a good, or a bad, idea. And the ultimate payoff?
"Working in Hollywood is sufficiently demeaning that you don't want to look in the mirror and see yourself getting old in the service of dumb-ass projects," Rick explains. "L.A. doesn't have much in the way of seasons. You want no landmarks to remind you that years are passing and you haven't accomplished shit. A youthful appearance is necessary to convince yourself that you still have time to salvage your life. I generally don't talk about my plugs in front of other plugged people. I do, however, point out my plug bros to my wife, who's sick of hearing about it."
Not as sick, however, as she could soon be of hearing about Rick's lost million.
Rick Rosner has qualified for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire 45 times. It's easy, he says. You simply dial a phone number, then answer the quiz questions with your keypad. From there, a lottery system narrows down the winners in an attempt to avoid White Male Repeat Caller syndrome, "which just means a lot more women watch this show than men," Rick explains, "and they don't want to watch a bunch of misfit geeks."
Last year Rick made it onto one of the show's first tapings, but not into the hot seat. This past summer, having requalified, he was again flown to New York to appear on the show -- where he was introduced as Rich Rosner, L.A. bouncer. Although Rick occasionally still works as a bouncer, he's never called Rich.
But Regis Philbin's very first producer, back in the days of Philbin's People, also happens to be named Rick Rosner. This older Rick Rosner went on to produce CHiPs, the spectacular launch of Erik Estrada's career. And it would have looked weird if Regis's Rick Rosner had almost gotten to be a millionaire, as our Rick almost did.
"Actually, the other Rick Rosner is a very nice guy," our Rick says. "He's had me and my partner out to lunch, and we might end up working with him."
Since a CHiPs reunion movie has already been made, anything's possible. And since the two Rick Rosners might someday end up in bed together, as the saying goes, I can't repeat anything funny or dishy our Rick happened to say about the other Rick.
Besides, there's still more about our Rick, or Rich, as he was known as he sat waiting for his turn, planning how to spend his million. He might move back to Boulder, a fine place to raise a family, despite what he describes as "an ever-accelerating flow of money turbo-charging the current variety of new-age sappiness." He would certainly start a fund for his daughter. Beyond that, he thought, "It'd be nice to have enough money to get sushi whenever I want it."
But none of that was meant to be. Because once Rick/Rich made it to the hot seat, at the $16,000 point he was asked the following:
What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level?
A. Mexico City
After calling his lifeline, travel writer Michael Konik, who also happens to be the author of The Man With the Million Dollar Breasts, Rick/Rich decided on D, Kathmandu. Wrong, Regis said, it was B, Quito.
After recovering from the shock of losing -- a brief shot of his anguished face still appears in Millionaire's opening credits -- Rick began rethinking the question. He dug deep into research and emerged with the discovery that the highest capital city was none of the four choices presented, but actually La Paz, Bolivia. Regis's research staff had gotten its information from the World Almanac, whose data is flawed.
"The World Almanac list of international city elevations includes only 1 percent of the world's cities," Rick recently wrote in a letter to Millionaire headquarters. "It includes only 13 percent of the world's capitals. And in every edition since 1994, 3 to 6 percent of the altitudes listed have been wrong."
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"After reading your letters and reviewing our research, we continue to believe that the answer to your $16,000 question is correct," headquarters responded. "Of the four capital cities given as answer choices, Quito is the highest and, thus, is the correct answer. As you may remember, the Official Rules for the competition, as well as the Contestant Release and Eligibility Form that you signed, provide that the decisions of the judges relating to all aspects of the game, including questions and answers, are final. Under these circumstances, we do not believe that a return trip to the show is warranted in your case."
But Rick begs to differ, and so he's campaigning to get back on the show, sending off volleys of statistics, polling the fans at various Millionaire Web sites, and generally pushing his position that you can't select a correct answer from four incorrect ones.
"Everyone thinks these guys are unassailable," he says. "And no one has been willing to be humiliated by them enough."
But now the master's at work. Look out.