Our own Sean Lackey follows his dream to make film ‘The Yank’ after best friend’s death, By Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Yarborough

Sean Lackey’s resolve was born on Nov. 7, 2010, the day his best friend died.

Lackey and Terry McChrystal met as freshmen at Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School, courtesy of the alphabet and a seating chart. Their friendship grew through four years as Wildcats, then four more as roomies at the University of Dayton. McChrystal went into banking; Lackey is an accountant.

If we’re lucky — and in the case of these two lads, it’s not a stretch to call it the luck of the Irish — we meet people we will love as long as we live.

Sometimes, even longer.

So it is for Lackey. A fatal heart attack at age 43 transformed Lackey’s golf buddy and lifelong pal into his inspiration. McChrystal’s death became the impetus for Lackey to complete an idea conceived after the 2004 wedding of another friend in Ireland.

The result is “The Yank,” another film project here in what’s quickly becoming Hollywood North, written, produced, directed and starring Lackey, with a $1.2 million budget. Thanks in large part to more than $330,000 from the Ohio Motion Picture Tax Credit, the picture is more than 60 percent funded, Lackey said.

“I’ve been going so hard for so long now, so I’m not going to stop till I get it done,” Lackey said in his elegant but atypical CPA’s office in Westlake (not many accountants decorate their workplaces with pictures of Chris Farley and U2).

“I think my friend dying really told me that,” he said. “Here’s a guy who was about to embark on a new career after being in banking his whole life. To be taken away from his family and what he wanted to do for the rest of his life . . . ”

Unlike people, dreams only die if you let them, and Lackey is determined to live his. Even if it is what some people may consider an odd one for a guy who deals in facts, figures and the IRS.

“I play an accountant in real life,” he joked, “but I’m really not.”

He’s right. Lackey is a veteran of Second City’s Cleveland troupe and is a driving force in “Flanagan’s Wake,” the improvisational musical about an Irish wake that will be resurrected — pardon the expression — for a three-month run at PlayhouseSquare this winter.

“The Yank” is a collaboration between Gavin Wilding’s Vancouver, Canada-based Rampage Entertainment and Post Industrial Productions, or PIP, a partnership involving Clevelanders Lackey, Allen Kellogg, Spencer J. Kim and Dave Thomas.

Faith ‘n’ begorrah, but Ireland and things Irish play a large role in Lackey’s life . . . and in his movie.

Lackey is the offspring of Irish immigrants. John and Eileen Lackey are rock-solid blue-collar people with a profound work ethic and a bent toward practicality they passed along to their son.

“I don’t know if I looked at the alphabet when I went to college and I saw the majors. The very first one was ‘accounting,’ and I said, ‘That’s for me.’ And acting is next.”

Lackey, who grew up making faces in the mirror, as wannabe actors are wont to do, said he always wanted to try the stage, “but I’ve always been practical and a realist. . . . you gotta make money to do this.”

Eating is a tough habit to break.

A story idea is born

on trip to Ireland Seven years ago, Lackey returned to the old country for the wedding of another Ohio friend, Paul Murray, and his bride, Mary Moore. What he found in Dublin was not the thatch roofs and donkey carts of lore, but a modern, bustling, urban city.

For a kid who grew up in Rocky River, especially a kid with a comedic edge, the idea was obvious. What if some guy from Cleveland, whose youth has been spent with Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day parties, green beer, corned-beef sandwiches and the pugilistic leprechaun from Notre Dame, actually came face to face with the real Ireland?

Even better, what if he came face to face with reality in a romantic comedy?

Wilding was taken with the idea . . . even if the first version he saw was a 140-page “Lord of the Rings” treatment.

“It hit me almost like a ‘Rocky’ story,” Wilding said. “And the Irish angle is going to be hilarious.”

Clevelander Fred Willard is on tap — but hasn’t been signed — to play Lackey’s gung-ho Irish father, who’s actually a fourth-generation Irish-American who has never even been to the Emerald Isle. He made the call after reading Lackey’s treatment.

“Willard’s agent got back to me in a day,” said Lackey, still clearly struck by the chance to work with the “Best of Show” star. “They said, ‘This is good.’ To me, that was the biggest vote of confidence in the world.”

In a nutshell, the story has Lackey’s character — Tom Murphy — headed to Ireland for a wedding (gee, where does he come up with these things?), and his parents think it’s a perfect time for him to meet the right girl: “Our own kind,” i.e., Irish.

Lackey’s Murphy is the best man, and it turns out that the maid of honor is the ex-security guard who tossed him out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum because she thought he was taking pictures of the U2 exhibit. Oh, and she happens to be Greek. Not Irish.

It’s pretty easy to guess where things go from there, but the fun is in the journey and the characters. Dublin-born Colm Meaney (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) is in negotiations to play Lackey’s sardonic Irish relative, and there’s hope that Christina Applegate (“Married With Children”) will portray the love interest.

The idea of Applegate kissing and falling in love with Lackey is an idea that amuses his wife of four years, Michelle.

“She laughs at it and says, ‘OK, honey. Like that will happen,’ ” Lackey said. But she gets the joke and understands that her husband has to follow his dream, as cliched as that sounds.

Chris Farley’s brother
likely to join cast The character to watch, though, most likely will be played by Kevin Farley, the brother of the late “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chris Farley.

“He’s just a naturally physical, fun guy, who’s a lot like his brother,” Lackey said. Farley’s Fred Finnegan is another Clevelander headed across the pond for the wedding. His goal, though, is to score as often as possible at Ireland’s multitudinous “discos,” and he’s convinced all he needs to do so are “Old Spice and a piano tie.”

None of the “name” actors has yet been signed, Lackey said. That won’t happen until the movie is fully funded.

“Once they’re signed, I’ve got to pay them,” even if the movie doesn’t get made, said Lackey, jokingly attributing that decision to “my accountant side.”

The movie will be shot in what Wilding called “Gonzo” style. There is a script with certain lines. But because of Lackey’s improvisational background — and the improvisational skills of the other actors — the bulk of the dialogue will be made up right on the spot.

Digital cinematography makes that not just possible, but economical, Lackey and Wilding said. Shoot it and like it? Keep it. Shoot it, don’t like it? Delete and shoot and again. This movie, were it on film in the “old-fashioned” way, would need a budget of $10 million, with most set aside for equipment and film.

Now, half of Lackey’s $1.2 million budget will go for actor salaries (Willard, Meaney, Farley and Applegate won’t come cheap). The rest will go for everything from craft services (that eating habit again) to equipment and travel; at least one portion of the movie will be shot in Ireland.

Lackey and Wilding hope to start filming this month or next — the West Side Irish pub the Harp and the Rock Hall will be two of the key locations. They will be hitting as many film festivals as possible, but Wilding said the big push will be for DVD sales and online. A mainstream theatrical release would be nice, but at this stage may be unrealistic, he said.

“It’ll find its own place when it’s settled. The basic hurdle is funding,” Wilding said. “You don’t have to do that well to do that well.” He’s predicting a worldwide take of $2.5 million to $4.5 million.

Which would be just fine with Lackey.

“This is not just one picture. I want to do a LOT of pictures in Cleveland. We have started a new company [PIP] that helps me become part of a new industry,” he said.

Somewhere in heaven, Terry McChrystal’s Irish eyes are smiling.

Final Proof

A year ~ it has been one year since I decided to publish a book of my own poetry. Today I signed off on the final proof. First Generation will be out in seven days. Poetry is a funny thing, some love it, most don’t care, and rare is the person who actually hates it. I have always loved it, and how a single line can paint a vast panorama, capture the essence of it, in a breath.

In November 2010, I was signing my previous book at Irish Books Arts & Music (iBAM) Showcase in Chicago. As Co-Founder and Co-Publisher of the Ohio Irish American News, I was asked to serve on a panel about the Irish abroad. I also entered my poem, the Vacant Chair, in the iBAM Poetry Contest.

As the panel discussion ended, I was asked to come to the library at the Irish Heritage Center. A fair few people were waiting there. The 3rd Place Award was announced, and read, then the 2nd Place was awarded, and read. My stomach was jumping, but I didn’t REALLY think Vacant Chair had won. It took 1st Prize. I was delighted, and surprised.

Irish actor Josephine Gleeson read the poem, and I watched audience reaction, as people started to cry. Later that night, we stayed for a drink at the end of the night. Josephine read it again, and again, people were crying. We finished the night at an afters party at Josephine & Frank Gleeson’s house, where Josephine read it for a final time.

Many have expressed appreciation for how my writing has touched them, but I hadn’t pushed on publishing my poetry. iBAM, and reactions during it, changed that. Yes, it was personal, but I never felt it was private.

The cover of First Generation has been bouncing around in my head for six months or more. The cover is a picture of The Famine Stone on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, with “icons” of Irish labor spaced around it. Photographer Rich Croft’s picture turned out even better than I had hoped; symbolism runs rampant through the Irish, in song, story, dress and soul, and I tried to capture that in the cover. Hopefully you will see something different each time you look at it, from the smallest ring, to the largest.

First Generation is sixty-nine of my favorite poems. I hope they speak to you. Hopefully they will touch in some way, different for each person, as they are viewed in the context of your own lives and experiences, and capture emotions, times and memories. Please share your thoughts, and this post.

For a peak at First Generation, here is my poem, The Vacant Chair, which is included in the work, and took 1st Prize at Irish Books, Arts & Music Showcase 2010:

The Vacant Chair
by John O’Brien, Jr.

I asked her if she could go home or did she have to stay out all night
She looked at me kind of funny, then her laughter peeled with delight
My heart it broke in two, and today I can still freeze the moment
But a terrible devil had been born, it’s destruction bent to foment
We saw no sign. We were young, without a care
Now I sit alone at the table, across from the vacant chair

We struck up a friendship; there was nothing more at first
Yet every time we separated, I felt an unquenchable thirst.
Friends grew to lovers, in body and the spirit.
We finally faced our fate, time to precious to mourn or hear it.
We found each others joys, she loved the teddy bear
Her soul hugged her heart, when I built the vacant chair

She was beautiful, she was gorgeous. The kindness that I saw
How she left me after the night, and always in constant awe
I was never so happy, we traveled and we laughed
We danced and we sang, she was a master at her craft
I wrote while she painted, her skill extraordinaire
Poems and fond memories, engraved deep in the vacant chair

We never had such happiness, each was wide with wonder
That kindred souls found each other, amidst the din and the thunder
No children had we, tho’ in the thought we’d often revel
For the sickness had already started, the bastard of the devil
Waiting, throwing up, more chemo left to bear
And when the pain got too bad, I widened out her chair

Time slipped away, but the devil wouldn’t let go
The drugs and the treatments – rained blow upon blow
She fought it so valiantly; she cried that we might part
Then I learned that it was winning and a knife ripped apart my heart
I did all that I could, she loved when I washed her hair
Damn you devil, Damn the empty vacant chair

Day after day, yet her smile was still bright,
When I’d walk in the room, see her body there so white
She was home now, in her own home, peaceful here at last
We planned out her funeral, and remembered about the past
The pain and the fashion, were more than I could bear
For one last night I held her close, as we dreamed together in the vacant chair

I asked her if she must go home or could she stay out all night
She looked at me kind of funny, then laughed with remembered delight
My heart it broke in two and I can still freeze the moment
But the terrible devil had won, death’s taking it did foment
We were frozen in time, lost, without a care
Now I sit alone at the table, across from the vacant chair

The time it goes so slowly, the moment’s hard to wait
This that brought such delight, now how I’ve started to hate
How can it sit empty, when I am still sitting here
How can the crying stop, when every single thing brings a tear?
I miss you love, we were a once-in-a-lifetime pair
So I search out the polish. Lovingly, I caress the vacant chair.

Why does poetry touch so few, yet touches them so deeply?

Everyone knows of poetry. They know they like it, or don’t. Understand it, or don’t. Most don’t find it a part of their life and don’t miss that. I find the turn of phrase, the said just so, hooks me, eternally. Concise panoramas.

I hate the limits placed on rhyming poetry, but understand the creativity and challenge. I am told I write it well. It just is not as satisfying to limit myself in telling you my story.

Expressing the great joy of a child, the loss of a soul, the impact of that once in a lifetime person, meeting, event, that alters me forever and being able to describe it to give a window in a memoir to you too, thrills me. When someone cries because of my poem, or laughs with me at the joke, or the surprising revelation that might be hidden, is a high I can’t explain; I can only paint a picture of, sometimes well, in 3 dimensions and five senses, sometimes just in words on paper. Whether it be a poem, a verse, a song, a chapter ~ emotions shared with someone not there, but believing they were, because writing transported them from now and here to then and there. It is a waltz.

Please share your thoughts…

And then there were two

1. Festival Legends: Songs & Stories ~ the People Who Made the Music That Defined a People was my first published book,in May, 2006. It is a biographical look at Irish music legends Tommy Makem, Danny Doyle, Johnny McEvoy, Liam Clancy, Tom Sweeney, Batt Burns, New Barleycorn and other significant figures who had such dramatic impact on Irish music as we know it today. The urgency I felt to capture the story, from the legends themselves ~ their story, in their words, came from over 300 hours of interviews with the legends themselves. The urgent need to record their story only became more urgent with the passing of Derek McCormack, at 51 years young.

2. First Generation is my first book of poetry. It will be launched at Irish Books, Artists & Music (iBAM) Showcase in Chicago November 12th. The cover of the book features the Famine Stone, on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, just down the curve from Irish Town Bend. I am proud to be part of the organizing committee in funding and administering the Famine Stone and the annual mass held the 3rd weekend of September each year is a fitting tribute to those who gave so much for our future. It is also a perfect match to the symbolic stone, past and present, future and famine.

You cannot capture the essence of a person or a culture in a word or a picture, or even a thousand words. The stone is framed with many different icons of Irish labor in America, not to capture, but to connect. Safety forces and flags, Sports and shovels, art and Irish sweaters are only a few. It is my hope that you will see something new each time you look at the cover and feel or explore something new each time you read my writing.

In the beginning

I am 1st generation. My father is from Atteagh Mills, outside Athlone, in the Co. Roscommon. He emigrated to Montreal in 1951; he was not the oldest son. There he met my mom, then came to Cleveland in 1963.

Like most, life has shaped me, changed me from what I was, to … I have always written, but never with purpose. A few memorials for people or poems of altering moments. When I was 19, I got rheumatoid arthritis (R.A.). The pain was severe, and escalating.

Doctors said Lupus, Connective Tissue Disorder and other things, and told me to change my major from Criminal Justice, and my goals of the FBI, to something else, for I might be in a wheel chair by the time I graduated from college. I did change my major, to Business Management. When I graduated from the University of Dayton and came back to Cleveland, I was finally correctly diagnosed with R.A. Then, about ten years ago, I cracked a vertebrae in my back playing hockey. After three years of trying everything under the sun to relieve the pain, I stopped. To make a few bucks, I began to write, with purpose.

My dad and a group of friends started Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival in 1982. Getting to know the performers, and the passion that fueled them, captured my attention and my imagination. I was always fascinated by the story behind the song – why did they write it, what influenced the story, and the time. I was often frustrated by the contradictory information scarcely available, so I resolved to do something about it. To get the facts, from those who created the history, became urgent. Derek McCormack’s passing away unexpectedly at age 51 was the final push to gather the story.

“Festival Legends: Songs & Stories, the People Who Made the Music that Defined a People” was published in May, 2006. While on tour for the book, I was fortunate to be invited to do a signing at Milwaukee Irish Fest, then went to Chicago the following week to meet book store owners in that area, guided by Shay Clarke. We were driving down the highway, and Shay stopped talking mid-stream, picked up his cell and called someone. “Hi Cliff, it’s Shay, you know how you want to start a paper in Ohio? I have your man”, and handed me the phone. Although I had never met Cliff, we talked for a bit, then met in Findlay Ohio, at a Cracker Barrel, no less, in October of 2006. Yes, I get the irony of that. Cliff and I became partners and two months later, the Ohio Irish American News hit news stands. We will celebrate our 5th Anniversary this January.

Cliff started Irish Books, Arts & Music (iBAM) in 2009, and invited me to present in the cultural area and sign my book. I returned to iBAM in 2010 and served on a panel on the Irish diaspora around the world. Terry Boyle was moderator, and he became a columnist for the OhIAN soon after. My poem “The Vacant Chair” took 1st Prize in the Irish Books, Arts & Music Showcase 2010. The reaction to the poem over that weekend convinced me that it was time to publish my poems in a collected work. The collection, “First Generation” will be available November 10th, fittingly, premiering at iBAM.

Of course, there have been many pivotal incidents along the journey. Twenty-five years after changing my major from Criminal Justice to Business Management, I am now in Criminal Justice again, serving as spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office. More irony.

I keep on writing, although the writing life is a difficult one, but life is much more so. We put our selves out there every day, and hope we can convey emotions into print, to give that chill, or sigh. When we make someone laugh, or cry, seek or persuade, we capture, however briefly, time.