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I’ve always loved the movies.

Remembered and realized tonight that is one of the very deep ways I connect with my old man.

Sure, I donated a kidney to him back in 1998, and we’ve always had a pretty good relationship. But the best conversations, the ones that had the most meaning to me personally, were the ones surrounding film.

We tried to connect over sports, and did for a bit with baseball, and again in the early 2000s when the Detroit Pistons were a dominant force in the NBA, but where we could talk, or more importantly, just kinda sit quietly together and experience stuff, was with movies.

He took me out of school on my 8th birthday to see a matinee of Star Wars, which started the path I’m still on today.

I returned the favor on his birthday when I took him out of work early on his birthday to see Die Hard when I was in college. I even gave him a grey sweatshirt that I had airbrushed “Now I Have A Machine Gun… Ho Ho Ho”, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he still has in his fall/winter collection.

This is not my father.

But some of my favorite memories of growing up revolve around going to theater, usually Woodland, where we saw Tootsie (because The Black Stallion was sold out), Being There, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Or the great Studio 28 in Grand Rapids, where we saw everything from The Rescuers, The Muppet Movie, Ghostbusters, the aforementioned Die Hard, Toy Story and a midnight showing of Jackie Brown.

He excitedly described episodes of The Twilight Zone when our local TV station announced that they would be running episodes of the old show, and his glee at watching us all gasp at the end of The Eye of The Beholder episode.

Masterpiece. I remember Dad vividly describing this entire episode before we had ever heard the theme.

But it was on our massive sectional couch down stairs where we would have family movie nights on Saturday night, over a pair of Pepperoni PizzaPizzas and 2 orders of Crazy Bread, where we took in The Untouchables, Beverly Hills Cop, Blade Runner, The Blues Brothers, The Toy, Splash!, The Natural, Back to the Future… and then late nights after I’d get done working at Pine Rest at 11p, coming home and Dad would stay up as late as he could through The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Planet of the Apes. One Christmas, right after I got divorced, watching The Red Violin.

There were always movies on in the house, and Dad would always watch them too.

Tonight we were chatting as he and Mom were getting ready to head out for an appointment and he brought up how much Blanche’s line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” resonated with him as they are encountering so many different people in the West Michigan health care system. We talked about doing that play at Calvin, but then about Marlon Brando, and then Elia Kazan and how horrible the blacklist was, and how great East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause were.

Vivian Leigh as Blanche in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

I can rattle off stats and years and directors and actors, and my dad also gets all that stuff, like sports stats. And I’ve kind of always taken that for granted. I used to think he and Mom were just kind of humoring me because I loved it so much, but I understand now that he is very much connected to those same threads. And teaching me things about the movies, actors, and directors he admires.

And I see it in myself now too, becoming more interested in the artists and music that resonate with my daughter, sharing their passions in a way I wouldn’t have before.

Maybe it’s symbiotic. Neither one of us led the other to it, we just all decided to drink from the same stream.

The last film I got to take my folks to was The Call Of The Wild at El Capitan in Hollywood, and we were able to see my name in the credits, under Additional Voices (which we are often not listed) and what a thrill it was to share that moment with both Mom and Dad, to see the name VANDENHEUVEL on the same cast list as Harrison Ford. It’s not about “making it” but about sharing a common love of something that inspires us all and helps us see more truth about life and living.

Original Art

Like Father…

… like son.

Movies have always been the timeline of my life, and I’m lucky and proud that I’ve gotten to share so many of them with the Old Man. (Props to Jean Shepard and my dad’s ragged old copy of “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.”)

Tonight I watched Smokey And The Bandit for the first time (shame on me for waiting so long) and I told him about it, and we laughed about Burt Reynolds and the car chases, and in the middle of all their medical drama, it was great to hear some laughter on the other end of the phone.

I wish I had watched it with him back on that old sectional.

But it was enough that we had both seen it.

“We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get thereI'm east bound, just watch ol' "Bandit" run” - Jerry Reed

January 14, 2022

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Today, I got the voicemail I’d been waiting for.

The tone of Mom’s voice told me everything I needed to know.

“Hey Kiff, it’s Mom. We’ve gotten results. Call me at your convenience.”

I’m in Australia, so I did the math. It was early AM tomorrow here, but yesterday evening in Grand Rapids.

She’ll have bad news whether I call right now or get a jump off on this work. I decide to bury myself in work so I don’t have to cut things short, and prepare. I text my brothers to let my folks know I’ll call when we break recording at 1p.

I see the WhatApp message from my brother Drew before we speak. Sure enough.

Leukemia. Treatment, but no cure.

Mom’s been sick for about 3 weeks and it seemingly came out of nowhere. That’s how it happens. The cough, the fatigue, but it doesn’t get better. Appetite but no improvement. The doctors bring in an oncologist for the first time. Spirits are still high and optimistic about this being a stubborn virus. Not covid, so what the hell? “Just knowing will make things better.” she said.

After the blood transfusion last weekend she had more energy, enough to get mad about the news. But spirits lift when I describe my adventures into the Australian hinterlands and climbing mountains with new friends.

But today, definition.

Now look, my mom is very much alive and in good spirits, in good hands, and is surrounded by all the rest of my family. She begins treatment on Dec 27th. But we are as a family beginning a new journey as we prepare for what’s next. And what’s next is daunting and unknown.

Tonight, I want to tell you about my mom, who she revealed herself to be to me, and share these memories, share her impact, the growth and the inspiration that she (and my dad) have had on our family and how I’ve come to be as a person, a friend, a colleague, an artist, a parent, a spouse and a son.

Marilyn was born on August 10, 1946 to Ralph and Ida Heynen, the fourth of four girls. As she tells it, she was very much her father’s daughter, a bit of a tomboy and nicknamed Butch by ______ (not sure, will get details when she reads this.

She has always struggled with her weight and consequently, her self-confidence. But to know her, you couldn’t know that. She’s always struck me as one of the most confident people I know.

Her willingness to risk on behalf of our family is jaw-dropping. Her focus has always been on her desire to give us all unique experiences like the camping trips she took as a family, where her folks would haul a little popup trailer across America and see everything our country has to offer. An intrepid, adventurous, insatiable spirit. Even the house they built on Lake Michigan was built to accommodate our large family which for the most part it does. It’s been a blessing for us all to spend the time together there. Our daughter has spent summer and winter nights with her cousins, climbing the dunes, swimming and playing like we did with our cousins growing up.

She and my dad taught school for a year before I was born and then when my dad got out of the National Guard, they both worked at Pine Rest Christian Hospital, a mental institution that has been the hub of our lives growing up, where my grandfather Ralph was the chaplain. Mom worked the switchboard at the hospital on Sunday afternoons after church, and we boys would go down to the gymnasium and spend HOURS playing there, scraping change out of her coin purse for the vending machine for a Reggie or Whatchamacallit bar.

When we didn’t have much change, we’d settle for sharing a pack of gum (only a dime). Dad worked in Risk Managment for most of his career at the Pines and we boys all worked there in just about every building, residence, unit and kitchen. We learned to drive on the campus of the hospital.

This was a thing. And it was awesome.

But my mom is an artist. Her medium is textiles. She’s a gifted visual artist with a deep faith and specifically loves the abstract and symbolism, and expressing her faith in the ancient symbols of Christianity embedded in imagery of the natural world.

One year, Mom decided our Christmas tree would be a Chrismon Tree, a pine tree with foam core white religious symbols with glitter glued to them and just plain ol’ white lights. No candy canes or colorful lights. Just crosses and fish and stars. (We did that just once, thankfully. It was beautiful but I’m sorry, it was a very boring tree. (Sorry, Mom. You know how I always preferred colored lights.))

To be fair, Marilyn’s was much more tasteful. Smaller ornaments, but you get the idea. (No disrespect meant to the Ursaline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph. This is a lovely tree,)

For a religious upbringing though, considering how conservative our grandparents were (both my Grandfathers were ministers in the Christian Reformed church) my folks were very liberal. In a tradition that forbade… and then frowned upon… and then eventually embraced dancing, card playing and movie going, my folks took us to the movies, (my first that I remember was Young Frankenstein, The Rescuers was sold out, so we pivoted) and always had a spare deck of cards (even if it was Uno.)

The folks were committed to covering the tuition of Cutlerville Christian School/South Christian High School for all 5 of us, a significant cost. This financial burden, along with Mom’s desire to create and work in her chosen medium, led her to begin her company, Banners Unlimited, which I still remember her painstakingly designing the simple but effective logo for. All before the days of Photoshop and when opaque projectors were expensive and unwieldly.

As we all once worked for Pine Rest, we all worked for Banners, developing our tracing and cutting skills. My brothers did not care for this but I loved it. I would make my own custom t-shirts and sweatshirts and applique the logos to my favorite movies and cartoon characters unto my jean jacket. It was often tedious, exhausting, unfulfilling work for her and frustrating to my father as well. But it was her force of will, drive, and application of pressure to accomplish a vision she had, tied to her deep belief in being able to use your talents to make your way. An artist in Cutlerville, Michigan without a rich benefactor. Making our tuition and mortgage payments 25-40 bucks at a time for clients who needed custom work for their boats, businesses and political campaigns.

We would go to art shows in the summer, every weekend a different art shows, selling flags of U of M, MSU, ohio state (lower case on purpose), and a million Irish and rainbow flags and windsocks. She also had pieces that were original minimalist designs, meant to emulate the sunset over Lake Michigan, seagulls, and tulips. She and Dad usually didn’t get much sleep the night before, sewing streamers on the windsocks, and putting plastic strips through the top and bottom of them to hold their forms, pounding grommets into the flags. As we got older and better with those tools we would assist, trying hard not to fuck up the placement and render a potential unit unsellable. We’d get up at 4:00a and load the van and Mom would sleep in the front seat as Dad drove us through the bank to get cash for change and then on to Pentwater or Muskegon or Grand Haven for 2 days of show life. We’d roll back home sometimes with a nice haul, and others, with more product than dough.

That’s what she did. What I learned from those years was a staggering work ethic, an attention to detail that has served my own work, and a willingness to bet the farm on my artistry. So when I expressed an interest in being an actor, I too, was filled with self-confidence in my talent and a willingness to risk. Learned that at home. It wasn’t a popular topic. My mother in particular didn’t like the idea. Hollywood is “a godless Babylon”, after all. At least, that’s what everyone in Cutlerville said. (Not entirely untrue, but Cutlerville could be a godless Babylon, too. The video arcades and party stores were at one time the very gates of Hell… until you needed mixers and Solo cups.)

My mom was bullied growing up. She was the only person who really empathized with my struggles with bullying as well because she had it really tough. Her advice was counter my father’s, which was to hit the bully once in the nose and that should end it. (Which worked when I finally tried it) Her advice was to counter the bullying with light. With kindness and warmth. To keep a sense of humor about myself. This has also worked, especially in the world of social media. I employ both tactics as required when the world has turned the eye of Sauron on me.

When I got to Calvin College, my mom always said that she and Dad wanted our home to be a place for our friends to be welcome at. And we took them up on it. Our big sectional couch served as a bed for many of my classmates over the years. We hosted friends over the holidays. All of us did. Mom and Dad were extended local parents to all of the kids we brought into the house.

Another virtue that was present in our home was generosity. Everyone is welcome to crash, eat, weigh station, chat, be heard, laugh and vent. My favorite time of my youth was the stretch from beginning high school through roughly 9 years to when I started work in Tennessee on a TV show and left home. I didn’t really even know I was leaving home when I took that job, but I did. That’s really when I moved out. I took the car, my clothes, Tom Waits and Springsteen CDs and my Laserdisc player and went to seek my fortune. Mom and Dad made frequent trips down, (they’ve always traveled to us wherever we lived) bringing the whole family along, and East Tennessee got adopted by the VandenHeuvels. We even went down there over a Thanksgiving while Dad was on dialysis and rented an A-frame. God, the phrase “A-frame” is what I remember the most leading up to that trip. Mom talking about all of us staying in the “A-frame in Laurel Valley.”

The best thing and the memories that I am now pulling forward were the hours of sitting around our dinner table and talking about movies, and comedy, and acing out bits from Saturday Night Live, and getting laughs. I would explain the plot of some film, act it out, cry about what it meant. Or recite Eddie Murphy bits or Robin Williams bits, or we’d tell the same old kid stories to each other and alienate the brothers who weren’t born yet.

Don’t get me wrong, there were also HOURS upon HOURS of hard discussions at that same table where Mom would get into my case about stuff like a acupuncturist. Dad would be along for the ride often and cosign with what Mom was saying but, damn, getting cussed out or having a talk like that with my mom was brutal.

Often when my brothers and I talk, we share what I’m sharing here, and we reflect on things differently about those times. I realize I look back as the oldest, as an artist, and as a first born. And the nature of my relationship with my mom is different from theirs. Just as complex and challenging and loving and beautiful, but also hard. Marilyn is a difficult and formidable woman, and we were raised to honor and fear her. Not an easy task, and even if neither of us were right, we always managed to find an equilibrium of understanding when we left that dinner table.

My superhero is Superman. And it’s not because of the comics. more because of the films. But also it’s what Superman/Clark Kent represents. A kind, strong, just, empathetic son of another place and time who strives to embody and inspire the values of the best of his adopted world. It’s truly what I aspire to be.

“It’s not an S. On my world it means Hope.” - Man of Steel, 2013

Marilyn VandenHeuvel made me believe I can fly.

Because of who I have been raised to be: open to risk, generous, persistent, passionate and joyful… I fly.

So, anyway, now she has leukemia.

Next steps?

Well, tonight, my goal as Superman/Christopher “Kiff” VandenHeuvel, is to do my best to use my ability to fly to ease the fall, brace for impact, comfort my family and shine on the light that this passionate, faithful, stubborn, kind, and loving artist from Cutlerville, Michigan taught me to shine.

And to not wait. To risk, to leap, to love, to share, to create.

And make the most of the time that is given us.

Because that time will end for every one of us.

But endings, like beginnings, can also be beautiful.

December 17, 2021

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Been radio silent for a bit here but for good reason. Recently landed a large on-camera job and had to leave the country to do it.

In film, TV and ESPECIALLY videogames, we actors working in the projects are often bound by a Non- Disclosure Agreement (NDA) about the project and our role in it, plot, design, etc. And if you follow any actors or show creators on social media, you know that there’s NOTHING we love more than crowing about our victories and getting our flowers. This is for good reason.

Cheri says all the time, “Some things pay in other ways than money.” This is 100% the truth.

The money I made on Richie Rich on Netflix is long since taxed, spent and forgotten about. However the work and the recognition on that amazing little project pays back daily. Just today, one of my fellow cast mates realized I was the dad on Richie Rich and lost his marbles. It was awesome and made me so proud that he loved our crazy little show and I delighted in watching him go from disbelief, to star-struck, and back to our videogame conversation like it was our new normal.

I’m the one wearing socks and sandals.

We are paid from OK to very well for our work, but it’s because we book so little of it. On average, I probably book one out of every 150-175 auditions I try out for. So when you land something, it’s kinda like shouting when you hit paydirt at the casino. It’s rare to get a win.

And when you are a nerd and you get to work on something you love on top of it… well, you make some noise.

When I recorded my dialog alongside Grey Delisle and Marc Grau for Disneyland/Disneyworld’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, we were all so excited to be able to talk about it together. The LEGENDARY once-in-a-lifetime gig was a shared secret between 3 folks who had never worked together, and then we put it back in the NDA bottle until Disney announced the new changes well over a year later.

Grey played Redd the Pirate, and I’m the Auctioneer in blue.

Holding secrets like this is hard, but the best part, is they are shared secrets. And we help each other keep them. Like being pregnant or an engagement, or a surprise party, or a great Christmas gift.

Today, there is so much emphasis put on “credits” and “fans” and “followers” that sometimes that secret can feel like a burden. I actively have to remind myself that I am just a tiny part of the whole, and that even though I am part of it, it is not my story to tell.

And the reveal is fleeting. It’s a 48 hour high. And once it’s out, it’s out.

But the SHARED element is the greatest. It brings you closer to each other, making those of you involved in the project grin like idiots at each other in common spaces, speak in hushed tones with giddy delight and anticipation at what you know that the WORLD does not.

Tonight, I am feeling the “shared” component very acutely. While we are making progress, many of my fellow actors on the show I am shooting overseas are returning to their homes with their secret intact, waiting patiently to be able to share our common story.

Our special ensemble of actors from all over the world is changing. People who were absolute strangers to me in September have become dear life-long friends. We all miss our families in a way most folks disbelieve. “How could you possibly leave your family for 4-5 months and miss the holidays? Isn’t that hard?”

Yes. It’s excruciating. And it never gets easier.

All of us who remain to continue shooting watch our friends leave wistfully, envious of the family traditions that our castmates will be enjoying in a couple weeks.

But those who are leaving feel the perfect opposite. Leaving this special group of people assembled here by casting directors and producers is very hard for them as well. And while the joy of being back home with loved ones is everything, there is a cost with having to say goodbye.

Someone said to me recently, if it hurts to say good bye, you’re doing things right. And tonight, and over the next couple days, we’re doing things right.

Cheri and I have always known the pain of working apart and the gift of the close friendships developed with cast members. This is the nature of working in and around theatre and film. Cheri is usually the one on a 3-6 month contract in venues outside of our city, but having to do it now, I have a much greater appreciation for the work performed keeping the home fires burning, as well as the emotional toll and the gift of support from your fellow suffering castmates. We prop each other up, hug each other as proxies for our partners and kids, support and dine and gamble and drink and drink and laugh and drink.

And keep our secret until the rope drops and the world can enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Tonight my heart is with my friends who have left and are leaving, filled with gratitude of your artistic excellence and tremendous talent, your warmth and camaraderie, and willingness to share your lives with us all. And it is also with your families as they eagerly await to retrieve you from the airport, to hold you and smell you and remember, and start the next new chapter with you home.

My heart is with my own family, and those of my castmates who remain, who must wait a little longer for their retrieval. It’s coming sooner than it feels like, just a little bit longer…

And as one of the remaining cast members, and crew here, I cling even tighter to you, my colleagues. I celebrate Christmas and New Years and the gift of your company and presence in my life. You’ve all made me a fuller, better, and more satisfied person. You are a gift I didn’t know I needed. I only hope I can be that for you.

Gotta put up a tree in my hotel room. Even though it’s hard, it’ll be worse without one.

“We few, we happy few,

we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother.”

-Henry V, William Shakespeare

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