Great Moments in Western Civilization #1 Kiss Drummer Peter Criss Confronts His Homeless Imposter on Donahue

Welcome to the very first installment in Great Moments in Western Civilization. We’re kicking off with what I can say without exaggeration is the single finest hour of television in recorded history: the 1991 episode of Donohue where debauched libertine Peter Criss—the Caligula of drummers—confronted Christopher Dickinson, a homeless alcoholic who was impersonating the former Kiss drummer in order to score five hundred dollars in cold hard cash and a lush three-night stay in a motel from the unscrupulous tabloid Star for participating in a story alleging Criss was a homeless alcoholic panhandling for spare change

So basically what happened is this: The imposter is Chris but he’s not actually Criss and also he wasn’t in Kiss. The real Criss clearly feels dissed and knows something is amiss and can’t believe he has to put up with this. 

Donahue is enraged on Criss’ behalf. He feels duty-bound to defend Criss’ honor and good name. He’s particularly apoplectic that a substance abuser like Chris is pretending to be Peter Criss because, as Donahue cluelessly thunders of one of the most notorious drug addicts and alcoholics in rock history, “He doesn’t even drink coffee!” 

Chris is in the hot seat. By his own account, he’s a homeless alcoholic who has spent 90 percent of his time in a drunken, bleary haze. Yet somewhat disconcertingly Christian still looks a lot better and healthier than Criss, who, in Donahue’s mind at least, has been living the life of a monk for a decade since leaving Kiss, raising a family and taking quill to paper to write his memoirs when not composing songs for his next album. Criss eventually published that memoir some two decades later and it is a masterpiece of sleaze and degradation on par with Motley Crue's The Dirt.

 The real Peter Criss

The real Peter Criss

Then one day something interrupted the Zen calm of Criss' wholesome post-Kiss lifestyle when people at his beloved mother’s funeral started asking him about being a homeless bum the benevolent folks over at Star describes as a “hopeless alcoholic leading a pathetic life on the streets.” They could not have been more wrong: the real Peter Criss was a hopeless alcoholic leading a pathetic life of luxury. 

Having an imposter to blame for your misfortune at least represented a change of pace for Criss, who was accustomed to destroying his own life. 

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Christian is visibly uncomfortable as an indignant Donahue explodes with manufactured outrage at Christian’s crimes. 

 Fake Peter Criss

Fake Peter Criss

Donahue then introduces, via satellite, an affable, strangely familiar-looking goofball with an intense, jet black power-mullet and an ingratiating smile he refers to as “Thomas.” Donahue might refer to this young man as Thomas but you and I know him by a different name: Tom Arnold. Yep, as just one of the too-crazy-for-fiction elements of this episode, Kiss super-fans Roseanne and Tom Arnold were so concerned about Criss’ sad state that they went to skid row to look for him, despite being huge celebrities themselves. 

Arnold is a minor player in the sordid melodrama but he comes off more like an appropriately overjoyed spectator geeked beyond belief to have a front-row seat to one of the craziest hours in television history. You know the famous Gif of Michael Jackson eating popcorn from the Thriller movie? That’s Tom Arnold on Donahue. That’s also us. One of the many crazy elements of this episode is that a young, mulleted Tom Arnold is clearly the audience’s surrogate, even more than the actual studio audience. 

 Wildest McLaughlin Group ever! Also, very tough Fuck, Marry, Kill

Wildest McLaughlin Group ever! Also, very tough Fuck, Marry, Kill

Watching Arnold participate in this glorious train wreck made me realize that I kind of love the guy. He’s a goober for sure, but he seems like a sweet guy with a never-ending supply of colorful anecdotes (he was a terrific Random Roles subject) and he’s a surprisingly engaging character actor in movies like Happy Endings and Touch. 

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We’re introduced to Christian and Tom Arnold but also Cheryl Ann Thompson, an actress who claims to have had a drunken five month long romantic relationship with Criss in 1981, and her mother. Thompson talked to Christian for five hours over the phone to confirm that he was the real Peter Criss but when she picked him up at the airport, she was aghast at being confronted with a blatant imposter. 

Thompson describes Christian as  “disgusting. He was enough to make anyone throw up” she insists, yet she and her mother graciously allowed him to live in their home for a month despite this sad gentleman's vomit-inducing disgustingness. Thompson says she felt sorry for him but also that he seemed like a pretty chill guy, except for being a raging alcoholic.

Criss ribs Christian, by asking, in his thick Noo Yawk accent, “How you doing? Why couldn’t you impersonate the Lone Ranger, or Tonto or something like that? You really gave me a rocky time.” 

Criss then proceeds to almost instantly forgive Christian, blaming Star for manipulating a desperate alcoholic. Criss, Donahue, the guests and the audience don’t just go easy on Christian: they give him a free pass. They like him. They sympathize with him. They see him as a victim of an unscrupulous tabloid and dishonest schemers. The crowd has so much sympathy for Christian that at one point the host has to remind the crowd, “He did acknowledge he was Peter Criss. Let’s not have any telethons for the man!” 

 Cheryl Ann Thompson

Cheryl Ann Thompson

In that respect, Christian’s starring appearance on the show is a massive bait and switch. We’re promised the drama and conflict of an outraged rock and roll star tearing into the drunken, lying impostor who fucked up his life at the worst possible time, when he was still reeling from his mother’s death. 

Criss honestly doesn’t seem to have too much of a problem with the sad-eyed vagrant pretending to be him for tabloid fame and some walking-around money but he has a huge problem with Thompson, who he accuses of calling his home constantly and badgering both him and his child despite Criss never having met her. 

We were promised the real Peter Criss versus a fake Peter Criss. Instead, the episode ends up being about a fake girlfriend and a fake relationship that may or may not actually be fake. Criss rages against Thompson as a desperate schemer lying about having had a romantic relationship with him to grab her fifteen minutes of fame and appear on television. 

Thompson could not be more indignant. “I” she proclaims defensively, “am an established actress, Peter!” Despite her claims to have appeared on Matlock and Simon & Simon, Thompson's greatest and most important performance is undoubtedly as a fascinatingly sketchy conniver who may or may not have had sex with Peter Criss. 

Thompson does not have any physical evidence whatsoever to back up her claim. There are no photos, love letters or other mementos, although if a pair of alcoholics were getting blackout drunk and fucking in 1981, and one party was married, I’m guessing they wouldn’t be too keen on documenting their fling for posterity.

Thompson comes off as a character from gothic fiction. It’s easy to imagine her as a creation of J.T Leroy (herself a fictional creation) or Joyce Carol Oates, someone whose lust for fame and glory leads her down some dark roads. Christian the Impostor is more or less forgotten so Criss, his then-current wife Debra Jenson, his ex-wife Lydia and even Tom Arnold all dogpile on Thompson in an attempt to make Criss seem wholly innocent and Thompson a scheming vixen. 

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Arnold doesn’t have much to do on the show. Like Christian, he mostly just sits there and takes in the surreal spectacle until he announces at a particularly dramatic moment that Thompson and her mother asked he and his infinitely more successful wife for ten thousand dollars. The pressure is relentless but Thompson refuses to crack. 

Things just keep flying further and further off the rails. Late in the episode a man named Clifford Blessing calls in and contributes to the assault on Thompson’s story by describing her as a compulsive liar. 

A clearly rattled Thompson then announces very dramatically and theatrically, “Clifford Blessing is a homosexual” as if that had any bearing on anything. 

Clifford Blessing, who, incidentally, may have the best name in the world, announces that his super-hot girlfriend would object to him being called a homosexual but Donahue clearly had homosexuality on its mind because this glorious, infinitely re-watchable treasure closes by teasing on the next episode, “She cheated on her husband—with another woman!”

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Another woman? Such transgressions truly merit an exclamation point! How could the Peter Criss episode possibly compete with an episode about a woman who is attracted sexually to men and women? Is that even a thing? 

Having just seen, and loved, The Disaster Artist, I now want James Franco to make a movie about this episode. You wouldn't even need a script. You could just work off the transcripts. James and Dave Franco would be perfect as Criss and Christian, and Cheryl Ann Thompson is the kind of juicy role actresses win Oscars for. 

I can’t help but wonder what happened to Christian. I hope he got the help he desperately needed and turned his life around. As for Criss, he was replaced by an impostor of sorts when Kiss drummer Eric Singer began performing wearing Criss’ Catman make-up after Criss was repeatedly kicked out of the band. 

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It seems safe to assume that Singer got more than five hundred dollars and three nights in a motel for more or less stealing Criss’ persona, but you never know. I wouldn't put it past Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley to low-ball Singer that way. Besides, if Singer puts up too much of a fuss, they can always just replace him with an impersonator. They've done it before. 

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