There are certain celebrities who, through the roles they play, the music they make, the peeks they reveal into their personalities in interviews, and through their public personae, make us feel as if we know them; that they’re part of our extended families. That’s even more true here on the Monterey Peninsula, a magical place that many notables, from all manner of creative endeavors—whose circumstances allow them to settle just about anywhere—have chosen to call home. Locals take pride in the fact that we can regularly espy movie, television and rock stars, sports figures and titans of business picking up produce at the corner market, just like we do.
That’s why the passing of these three high-profile public figures—Betty White, Michael Nesmith and John Madden—particularly resonated with Carmel-area residents. They will all be sorely missed by their many fans and by those who knew them—and also by those who just saw them in the checkout line at Safeway.
Thousands of words have been published and hundreds of hours of tributes have been aired for Betty White on television, the medium on which she made an indelible mark. The unforgettable characters she created for films and television programs such as Sue Ann Nivens for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Elka Ostrovsky on “Hot in Cleveland,” Bitey White in “Toy Story 4,” Rose Nylund for “The Golden Girls”—even her turn in a horror flick as Mrs. Dolores Bickerman in “Lake Placid,” a 1999 picture about a man-eating crocodile in Maine—cemented her position as one of the hardest working and most versatile actresses of her generation. We invited her into our living rooms countless times, so often that she almost seemed like a member of the family.
In 1978 White and her third husband, TV personality Allen Ludden, purchased a plot of land on Ribera Road, in the then-new Carmel Meadows subdivision south of Carmel. The celebrity couple built their dream home, a haven and refuge from fast-paced Hollywood where they made their livings. While here, she kept a relatively low profile, with a few notable exceptions.
Betty White’s love of animals is well known. “She was a longtime supporter of SPCA Monterey County,” says Beth Brookhouser, vice president of marketing and communications. “I was a huge fan of Betty’s growing up. One of my first events here was a fundraiser for our Wildlife Rescue Center. We auctioned sponsorship of great horned owls that were being released into the wild. Betty was the high bidder,” Brookhouser says. “She got up on the stage and said with a big smile and twinkle in her eye, ‘My accountant is going to kill me.’ That brought down the house.” White supported the SPCA in many ways, including recording Public Service Announcements for the organization’s annual telethon. “I remember her sitting in our lobby during a shoot,” Brookhouser says. “Every time we brought out a new dog her eyes would light up. Meeting a new animal never got old for her.”
“I didn’t know her well, but one time I was at an event that Betty also attended,” says Myles Williams of Carmel Valley. “I mentioned that I was a friend of Paul Witt’s.” (Witt was half of Witt Thomas Productions, the company that produced “The Golden Girls.”) “Betty said ‘Come over here and say that again. Paul is one of my favorite people in the world. He set my life flying by putting me in ‘The Golden Girls.’”
Williams had another interaction with her when they both appeared in the 2006 film “Where’s Marty?” The project was the brainchild of writer/director Nola Rocco. “I was on the Monterey County Film Commission’s Board of Directors,” Rocco recalls. “We were looking for a creative way to raise funds for the commission’s scholarship program. I had worked in the film industry, so I got the idea of producing a movie, auctioning off parts for donations to local Monterey Peninsula residents only.” Williams signed on, as did businessman Ted Balestreri.
“I felt that we needed something more, some icing on the cake, thinking it would be great to get a big star who actually lives here in the movie,” Rocco says. The first person she called was White. “She asked for a copy of the script, which I immediately hand delivered to her LA home. She was lovely…and she loved the script.” The actress signed on.
“She totally ad libbed her whole scene,” Rocco says with a laugh. “Didn’t follow my script at all. Betty White being Betty White was way better than anything I wrote.” After the shoot, cast and crew gathered around the icon while she regaled them with stories.
White worked her entire life and loved every minute of it. She told an interviewer, “Why retire from something if you’re loving it so much and enjoying it so much?” Her final curtain call was revising her Bitey White chew toy character in a 2019 “Toy Story” short.
Betty White passed away December 31, 2021—just 17 days shy of her 100th birthday—at the Brentwood home where she had been living in her final days. But as a friend said, “If she had it her way, Betty would’ve lived and died in her Carmel home. It’s where she felt more comfortable.”
Literally, figuratively and culturally, Carmel is indeed a long way from Texas. Born in Houston and raised in Dallas, Michael Nesmith—”Nez” to friends and fans—first came to Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1954. “My mother bought a second house on 8th and Junipero in Carmel-by-the-Sea as a vacation home,” he said in a 2020 Carmel Magazine interview. It’s common knowledge that Nez’s mother Bette was the inventor of Liquid Paper, later selling the company to Gillette for nearly $50 million. “Later, she got another home on Scenic that I inherited but immediately sold,” Nez continues. “I regret that, but I also realized that there was nothing I could do with it. A $7 million house is not something you can keep in a drawer.” He eventually settled into a comfortable home in Carmel Valley where he passed away on December 10, 2021. “Carmel has always felt like home,” he said. “There’s something inspirational about the quality of life here.”
Nez was something of a renaissance man. He became an overnight household name in 1966 when he was cast as the watch cap wearing guitarist Mike in The Monkees, a “pre-fab four” American answer to the British invasion bands of the day. As a songwriter, he was already an established commodity and penned “Mary, Mary,” a tune that was recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and later, by The Monkees themselves.
Thoughtful, intelligent, creative, well-read and articulate, it was only natural that Nez would turn to writing. “I tried to lead the life of a pop star, but eventually I realized I just wasn’t cut out for it,” he said. He wrote two novels, “The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora” and “The American Gene” and published an autobiography, “Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff,” in 2017. Nez also tried his hand at Hollywood, serving as executive producer of three feature films: “Repo Man,” “Tapeheads” and “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann.” From the music he wrote and recorded with his First National Band, he’s credited with being a founder of the country-rock genre, later taken to the heights of success by groups like the Eagles.
In the early 1970s, Nesmith formed Pacific Arts, a Sand City-based company devoted to producing and distributing music and video projects. One project, 1981’s “Elephant Parts,” was a pioneering mélange of comedy skits and music videos that featured “Chicago Steve” Barkley. a young Monterey Peninsula-based stand-up comedian. “I met Michael through a friend who worked for him, and he hired me to act in ‘Elephant Parts,’” Barkley says. “At the time I was doing a bit onstage called ‘Name That Drug,’ and he included it in the film.” The project used locations all over the Monterey Peninsula as well as Pacific Arts’ Sand City studio. “I remember sitting in a trailer going over lines with him, thinking to myself, ‘This is crazy. I used to watch this guy on TV when I was a kid!’ He was always my favorite Monkee.” Barkley saw Nez perform live in Chicago when he went to see Jimi Hendrix, who was an (oddly paired) opening act for The Monkees.
Dale Kurokawa was a young Monterey Peninsula College student playing guitar in Jet, a new-wave cover band. “Michael came in to see us at Mission Ranch, where we were pretty much the house band,” Kurokawa recalls. “He would hang out in the back, and we didn’t know he was there.” It turned out that Nez was specifically looking for a band to sign to Pacific Arts that performed original music in the then-red-hot English New Wave style, and these young men fit the bill. “Nez came to a rehearsal and asked if we wanted to do an album. Our reaction? ‘Are you kidding? Of course!’”
The recording process was quick, tracked at Walden Studio in the Carmel Highlands. “It was done in two or three weeks. Michael popped in a few times, but wasn’t particularly hands on.” Kurokawa recalls one meeting with Nez in his office. “He started talking about the future, rolled in a TV and started showing us music videos. You could see his passion for the genre. He was focused on it.” That focus led Nesmith to become one of the pioneers of the music video boom that took over the industry in the 1980s. He was a driving force behind the creation of MTV.
“That experience with Nez was a life changing event for me,” Kurokawa says. “If he thought I was good enough, then maybe I am. It was amazing to be picked out of obscurity. I owe him a lot. I really do.”
Despite all these accomplishments—and more—Nez maintained an aw-shucks modesty about his work and being labeled as a pioneering figure in the music and video businesses. “I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “I understand the point and I understand how someone might look back and think that. I haven’t chosen that for myself. I love discovery. It’s an important element of thought. The road less traveled, innovation and discovery and the basis of an idea are wildly appealing to me.”
He was a giant of a man, not only in stature but in spirit and in his professional life. His career is widely known by fans of football, the sport he loved so much and excelled at in many aspects: as player, Super Bowl-winning coach, commentator, even lending his name to and voicing a wildly popular Electronic Arts video game, “John Madden Football.” Drafted by the 1958 Philadelphia Eagles, he was injured before he could play a game. As a result, he earned his teaching credential and realized he could merge his love of football and teaching by becoming a coach. That decision took him to the top of the profession as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, the team he took to the 1977 Super Bowl win over the Minnesota Vikings. Retiring after ten years of coaching, he became an on-air personality for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox Sports.
The football legend adored his beachside Carmel home. “Right before he retired from the Raiders, he and my mom bought a 25-foot boat that we would sail around San Francisco Bay,” says John’s son Joe Madden. My dad suffered from allergies, and it was a way for him to get fresh air. When they sold it, they looked for another place for fresh air.” And they found it, smack dab on Carmel Beach.
“John treasured his getaway time in Carmel,” says CBS Sports broadcaster and Pebble Beach resident Jim Nantz. “He had a couple of his closest friends in the world here.” One of those was Dominic Mercurio, owner of Café Fina on Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf. “The thing about John was that he was this big, mean, tough guy on the sidelines, but so big-hearted off the field and so kind to other people,” he recalls. The restaurateur remembers an occasion when he and Madden were dining at Café Fina, and a Seaside High School football player approached him to autograph his football. “John asked what position he played. ‘Wide receiver,’ the kid said. John said, ‘Oh yeah? Let’s see if you can catch.’ He took the ball and threw passes to the young player right there on the wharf.”
Fermin Sanchez, proprietor of Bruno’s Market in Carmel met Madden three decades ago. “He came in the store every morning he was in town,” he says. “He’d grab all the papers, a cup of coffee and an apple fritter.” One day Madden asked Fermin if he knew anyone who might be interested in a friendly poker game. He did. “I called some friends (including Mercurio) and set up a game at the Pacheco Club in Monterey.” Eventually the idea came up that it might be cool for the group to have a clubhouse. “We found an apartment that had formerly been the office for Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn,” Sanchez recalls. “John brought in a big TV, and we got a poker table from Reno.” They also installed a bar from Newport Beach, purportedly once owned by John Wayne, and they were off, playing weekly games when Madden was in town, watching sports, and celebrating birthdays and holidays.
The apartment was in a courtyard behind the former Em Lee’s restaurant, an establishment that had the only soda fountain in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Madden would go to get milkshakes. The idea was floated that Sanchez, Mercurio and Madden purchase the business. It was a dream come true for Madden. “My dad’s first job was as a soda jerk in his hometown, Daly City,” Joe says.
“John was incredibly generous,” Mercurio says. Sanchez recalls the 1995 flood that inundated much of the area around the Carmel Mission, including the adjacent baseball park. “The equipment locker and its contents were damaged, so someone came up with the idea of a benefit concert at Sunset Center, featuring John performing on a kazoo with Eastwood on washboard, to raise money to replace them.” That didn’t materialize, but Madden made out a check anyway. “He made anonymous donations around town,” says Fermin’s son Ryan. “And he did so anonymously, never wanting his name on anything.”
After Madden died on December 28, 2021, Fermin, Ryan and Dominic got the old gang together for one last card game at their old clubhouse. They brought in the old table—now ensconced at the Pacheco Club—and a few friends, leaving an empty chair for John, adorned with a Raiders jacket, his Hall of Fame hat and a cigar. “He always chewed on a cigar while we played,” Ryan says. “He never lit it.”
A final hand was dealt for a game of “Seven Card No Peeky,” including one for John. Madden won $60 from beyond the grave. A pallbearer at Madden’s funeral, Dominic placed the money and poker hand on his dear friend’s casket before it was interred in an Oakland mausoleum.
“John just had an overall warm appreciation for mankind,” Nantz says. “And Carmel gave him the opportunity to reflect like no other place in the land. In a sense, you could say being here was almost a spiritual experience for John.”
“My dad built his closest friendships around Carmel. Dominic was probably his best friend,” states Joe Madden. “My parents had a huge Newfoundland dog named Joey. Dad walked Carmel Beach with him.” If John Madden ever truly relaxed, that was as relaxed as he ever got, walking on the beach with his wife Virginia and his 200-pound dog.