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What would you do with sudden fame? Try to get more, or walk away happy? 

By Brad Herzog 
Illustration by John W. Tomac

I can’t recall a more satisfying childhood experience than the movie moment when Charlie Bucket unwraps the Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. After watching a parade of unpleasant little prize winners, I was desperately rooting for unassuming and underprivileged Charlie.

Peter Ostrum, the young actor with the starring role, had risen to fame like, well, like a kid sneaking a Fizzy Lifting Drink. He was performing at the Cleveland Play House children’s theater in 1970 when he was discovered by agents casting the film. They took some Polaroids, tape-recorded him reading lines, and called him in for a screen test. Suddenly 12-year-old Pete was traveling overseas for the first time and acting with Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson.

He was basically playing himself—down-to-earth and able to be awed without losing his sense of self. But unlike Charlie, who gratefully inherited Wonka’s factory, Ostrum returned to Ohio with the suspicion that filmmaking wasn’t for him. He even turned down producer David Wolper’s offer of a three-picture deal. 

“I enjoyed making the movie,” he explains. “But at that point, did I want to be a film actor for therest of my life? I guess I didn’t.” So in the only movie he ever made, Ostrum cemented his place in cinematic history.

Might that be the ultimate one-hit wonder? And if not, what is? Nearly a decade ago, David W. Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, published an academic paper about this for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Its title: “One-Hit Wonders: Why Some of the Most Important Works of Modern Art are Not by Important Artists.” Galenson focused on 13 visual artists—from Grant Wood to Maya Lin—“each of whom produced a single masterpiece that dominates the artist’s career.” His conclusion? Artists who produce isolated masterpieces tend to be conceptual innovators who execute their single major work early in their careers. 

My problem concerns his very definition of the phenomenon: “A one-hit wonder occurs when an important work of art is created by an otherwise unimportant artist.” It’s easy to find creators of early masterpieces who never quite lived up to their potential. But what exactly is wondrous about peaking early and plateauing? Why would we want to define wondrousness through the prism of subsequent failure? And why do we consider that failure at all? 

How we interpret the following stories says a lot about us. How would you feel if you did something truly glorious and then never quite hit that impossible mark again? Or would you choose not to try, deciding that one great hit is more than enough?

The Group

If there were a soundtrack to this journey, it would be “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” by Steam. It was recorded by a trio of little-known musicians who had once been bandmates but joined for a single recording session years later as a musical entity without a name. Tasked with recording a song meant to be a throwaway B-side tune, Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo, and Dale Frashuer couldn’t come up with suitable lyrics—so they substituted words like “hey hey” and “na na.” It’s said that they attributed the song to a fictional band called Steam because they were so embarrassed by it. But that one session resulted in a recording that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1969 and has since become a sporting-arena staple. 

Malcolm Gladwell would plotz, of course. The most talked-about part of his outstanding book Outliers was the way he repeatedly trumpeted the “10,000-Hour Rule,” which posits that it takes about that many hours of practice to become an expert at almost any cognitively demanding competitive endeavor. The notion complements the widespread belief, certainly generally valid, that achievement is all about perseverance. But sometimes at first you do succeed. Wildly. 

The Ballplayer

On April 4, 1994, an unknown Chicago Cubs outfielder named Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes stepped up to the plate against famed New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. Up until then, Rhodes had hit only five home runs in 280 at-bats in his major-league career. That day, he slugged three homers in his first three at-bats. It will forever be known in Chicago baseball lore as the Tuffy Rhodes Game. But Rhodes managed only five more career home runs and was out of the big leagues within two years, embarking instead on a successful baseball career in Japan.

Using the same criteria that we use for, say, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”—a one-time classic by a mostly middling performer—Tuffy Rhodes’ singular day classifies him as a one-hit wonder. But John Paciorek makes a better one. 

Paciorek appeared in exactly one major-league game—for the old Houston Colt .45s, on the last day of the 1963 season. In five times at bat, he singled three times, walked twice, scored four runs, and recorded three runs batted in. He also made a couple of nice running catches in the outfield. Sportswriters anointed Paciorek a star of the future, but a series of offseason injuries derailed his career. That remarkable first game was the only big-league appearance he ever made. There are echoes of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in his tale: In Field of Dreams, the fielder turned physician says, “Back then I thought, Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” Graham never got to hit. But on his one day in the sun, Paciorek was flawless. He will forever have a perfect batting average. That is a one-hit wonder—try something once, achieve perfection, then leave the scene with your legacy forever untainted. Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye

The Filmmaker

There is a certain courage in trying to follow up astonishing success right out of the gate, when the potential fall is more precipitous, when the laurels are there for the resting. Sometimes it works: Pablo Picasso and Bob Dylan reinvented themselves. Sometimes it doesn’t: Painter Edvard Munch and pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood tried but could never match the success of “The Scream” and “Relax,” respectively. But even more intriguing are the one-and-dones. Maybe the ultimate one-hit wonder depends not on the one hit but on the motivation for stopping there. 

For Herk Harvey, the reason was disappointment. Harvey spent three decades producing and directing industrial and educational films in the Heartland. But in the early ’60s he decided to try his hand at a black-and-white, low-budget horror movie. Using mostly local talent in Lawrence, Kansas, and casting himself in a prominent, ghoulish role, he filmed Carnival of Souls over three weeks at an estimated cost of $33,000. The 83-minute film, released in 1962 by an upstart distribution company that almost immediately went out of business, never gained any traction. It’s now a cult classic. 

If you’re a fan of zombie films, surely you’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, the paragon of animated-corpse flicks. Director George A. Romero has admitted that his film was directly inspired by a movie that eschewed special effects and relied on atmosphere and stilted expressionism for eeriness. That’s right—Carnival of Souls. In 1989, when Harvey’s film was revived in commercial theaters, The Washington Post described it as “genuinely creepy in its narrative understatement and masterful naïveté” and called it “The Movie That Would Not Die.” Three years ago, Entertainment Weekly declared it “equal parts Ingmar Bergman and Ed Wood” and possibly the “greatest horror film you’ve never seen.” Although he later directed some shorts and a segment for Reading Rainbow, Harvey never completed another feature film. But late in life, he began to realize the importance his full-length foray had to modern horror filmmakers. 

The Author

If only John Kennedy Toole had had the same luxury. At about the same time that Harvey filmed Carnival of Souls, Toole wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, an unforgettable romp through New Orleans with flatulent and slothful protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly. Toole couldn’t snag a publisher, and in 1969, at the age of 31, he committed suicide. Soon after, his mother came across a smeared carbon copy of her son’s manuscript and relentlessly pursued its publication until Louisiana State University Press released it in 1980. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. There’s even a bronze statue of Ignatius J. Reilly along Canal Street in the French Quarter. 

Is Toole the ultimate one-hit wonder? Not by my criteria, which require that the person get the hit on the first try. It turns out that A Confederacy of Dunces wasn’t his only novel. He completed The Neon Bible in 1954 and couldn’t get that published either (it was eventually released in the late ’80s). 

In that sense, Margaret Mitchell doesn’t qualify, either. She published Gone with the Wind in 1936 and was awarded the Pulitzer a year later. It is generally described as the only novel she ever wrote, but that isn’t actually true. Like Toole, she wrote another book as a teenager. Lost Laysen was a romance novella that she gave to a boyfriend, and it remained undiscovered for decades. It was finally published—and became a best seller—80 years later. And besides, when she submitted Gone with the Wind to publishers, she also submitted a story about a Southern white girl in love with a biracial man. It was rejected.

Maybe Mitchell believed she would someday publish a novel again. After all, to borrow a phrase, tomorrow is another day. But perhaps the most wondrous one-hit wonders aren’t concerned with tomorrow. 

Sure, Joseph Heller tried mightily after Catch-22. And S.E. Hinton wrote a few follow-ups to The Outsiders. Even J.D. Salinger published Franny and Zooey after The Catcher in the Rye. But in a what-have-you-done-lately world, isn’t there something magnificent about someone deciding that one glorious masterpiece is enough?

Like Harper Lee. 

While many people consider A Confederacy of Dunces to be one of their favorite books and lots of folks have been swept away by Gone with the Wind, consensus suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird is the most loved piece of literature ever produced. The Pulitzer-winner has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there are nearly 30 million copies in print.  

Lee published the book, her only novel, in 1960. “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again,” she once explained.

Could there possibly be a more fitting choice for the ultimate one-hit wonder? To top it, a work of art would have to be something that transcends popular culture and captures a moment of unmatched historical importance—a one-time shot that will never, ever be surpassed.

You win, John Daniels. 

The Photographer

Daniels is believed to have snap-ped one photograph in his life. He did so on December 17, 1903, on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And he made it count. 

The original now resides at the Library of Congress, and it is depicted on the North Carolina state quarter. It is simply one of the most significant snapshots in human history. 

On that day in 1903, the 30-year-old Daniels was among a handful of people keeping busy at a particularly wind-ravaged spot in North Carolina’s Outer Banks: a place called Kill Devil Hills. The busiest two people were brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Daniels, a rescue worker from the local lifesaving station, was merely helping out where he could. 

After years of preparation, the Wrights pointed their aircraft into the wind. Orville set up a camera on a tripod, aiming it at a point he hoped the machine would reach when it left its takeoff rail. He instructed Daniels, who had never even seen a camera before, to squeeze a bulb triggering the shutter if the aircraft actually left the ground. After about 45 feet, the flying machine lifted into the air, and 120 feet later it touched the earth again. 

Daniels later claimed that he was so excited that he feared he had forgotten to squeeze the bulb. But the photo was perfect, capturing the craft mere feet off the ground, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. It was a moment that changed the world. 

The photograph has since been analyzed endlessly—from the location of footprints in the sand to the speed of the propellers—but it wasn’t the only excitement Daniels experienced that day. After the Wrights’ fourth successful flight, a gust of wind caught the Wright Flyer, causing it—and Daniels, who had been holding on—to cartwheel across the beach. The Flyer was damaged and never flew again. Until 1937, when he finally took a flight to Cleveland, the same could have been said of Daniels, who explained, “I’ve had all the thrill I ever want in an airplane.”

Daniels spent the rest of his years in relative obscurity on the Carolina coast, and he may have been most proud not of his seminal photograph but of his pioneering bruises. In fact, Orville Wright, who died within 24 hours of Daniels in 1948, used to joke that his friend “rode further in the plane than either of the inventors.” Of course, there were no photographs to prove it. 

Daniels verifies that the most wondrous of one-hit wonders have two things in common. First, the masterpieces are the product of one—and only one—attempt. And second, their singular quality is by choice. The wonder is in the contentment. John Daniels was satisfied. Like Harper Lee. And Peter Ostrum. 

The Veterinarian

After Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Ostrum found an entirely different calling. Shortly after he completed the film, his family acquired a horse. When a veterinarian arrived at the stables one day, Ostrum watched him work and had a life-changing epiphany. So now, four decades after his single film credit, Peter Ostrum has a doctor of veterinary medicine’s degree on the wall of his practice in upstate New York instead of lickable wallpaper. He is surrounded by a handful of dogs and cats, not Oompa Loompas. But Dr. Ostrum is so content in his choices that perhaps the final lines of his sole movie appearance were prescient after all:

“But, Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

 

Brad Herzog is the author of more than three dozen books for children, a five-book nonfiction series about character in sports, and three travel memoirs. His latest book, My Mantelpiece, is the co-authored memoir of Carolyn Goodman, civil rights icon and mother of one of the “Mississippi Burning” victims. Find him at bradherzog.com.


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