I don’t remember exactly where and when I met Jay Cochrane. I think we both had the same agent at one time, or he was a friend of my agent, or whatever.
But he was one of those people who immediately caught your attention. Not because there was anything particularly striking about him, but because he made a point of taking an acute interest in you.
My first memory of him was at one of those cramped, smoky and quickly drunk gatherings that greet actors when they step out of their dressing rooms on opening night. We’d barely said, "Hello” when he began a detailed grilling of my performance and what he’d gleaned from the show. And when he’d finished with me, he did the same to the next performer and the next.
This was a guy who wanted to know everything about what you were doing as well as how and why you did it. For some reason, each tiny detail was important to him.
When he told me what he did for a living, I kinda dismissed him. He was a tightrope walker. Seriously? How could you make a living doing that in Toronto in the 1970’s?
Although he’d performed in Circuses, Jay said he didn’t do that anymore. He was determined to follow the path of another daredevil of the era, Evel Knievel.
A comment like that ranked up there with all those guys playing guitar for quarters on street corners who were going to be the next Paige or Hendrix. Only Jay’s dream was a little harder to comprehend.
Not much later, I was walking past the downtown corner of Yonge and Bloor on a sunny, Summer day when I heard somebody call my name. I turned to see Jay move from a gaggle of reporters and news cameras wearing a sequined suit.
I was both surprised that he remembered me as well as seeing him in the outlandish get-up. Turned out he was about to go to work, hired to walk the distance between the twin 40 storey towers of the newly erected Hudson Bay Centre on that corner.
I glanced up, spotting a thin thread of wire barely discernable against the blue sky.
“Stick around!” he said, “I want to know what you think. I’ll be down in a minute.”
And with that he and the reporters disappeared inside the complex.
I’m sure the event had been heavily promoted, but it was news to me –- and apparently most of the rest of the city, because the street didn’t seem any more crowded than usual.
A few minutes later, Jay appeared on the ledge atop the first building, picked up a long balance pole and stepped into the void.
From the street level he was little more than a speck in the sky, the wire he was walking barely visible. But anyone watching was immediately aware that there was no net to catch him if he fell – and he wasn’t tethered to any kind of safety harness.
I’m pretty good about heights, but for a chunk of the walk I had to look away. Although this was a guy I barely knew, the enormity of what he was doing and its possible consequence was overwhelming.
And his obsession with detail suddenly made sense. In his occupation, everything had to be taken into account. Nothing, no matter how inconsequential, could be overlooked. His life depended on it.
After what seemed an eternity, he reached the second tower, waved to the crowd below and disappeared. I wasn’t sure if I should wait for him like he’d asked. What do you say to a guy who’s just done something death defying? Nice work? Wonderful show? Nothing seemed adequate.
So when he finally did arrive, still sequined and smiling, I had to be honest. “I gotta tell you,” I said “I didn’t really believe you did this.”
He laughed and shrugged. “I know. I get that all the time. It’s not a normal way to make a living around here.”
Walking home later, I realized those words applied to me as much as they did Jay. Who becomes an actor in a country with no history and little understanding of show business?
But then what makes anyone with a talent or a calling think they can make others believe they are worth the investment of time or money it will take for their potential to be realized?
But we do it. Despite everything around us either insisting it can’t be done or dismissing the effort as pointless.
Jay Cochrane died today after a long and illustrious career as a Skywalker. He remains the holder of 7 Guinness World records including the longest and highest skywalks as well as a historic blindfolded walk in Las Vegas.
Never dismiss anybody with a dream. You have no idea what powers lie within them.