PJ Torokvei was an alum of Second City and SCTV where she worked with John Candy. She later became producer and head writer of WKRP in Cincinnati, a situation comedy that ran from 1979 to 1982 and is no doubt still appearing in reruns across the nation. PJ and her colleagues won two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series.
PJ also cowrote the films Real Genius, Back to School, Caddyshack II and Guarding Tess.
PJ transitioned from male to female in 2001. On July 3 she died of complications from liver failure.
Stan Brooks was one of her closest friends and collaborators. He wrote a tribute to her for The Hollywood Reporter.
PJ and John didn't just write funny; they knew funny. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen are reputedly quoted as saying, You can't teach funny; you have to be born funny. Anyone who spent even five minutes around PJ or John saw the truth in that. They could take any scene -- even a scene that to me wasn't funny at all -- change a line, change the screen direction, add a prop and BOOM, it was really funny. I was constantly reminded of Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys monologue about what is funny (“Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Tomato is not funny. Roast beef is not funny.”) With John as the director and PJ as his collaborating writer (and actor in his troupe), they were constantly making each other -- and the rest of us -- laugh. And they both knew that the best humor came from truth and real emotion.Brock and PJ became closer friends after Candy's death in 1994. Brock hired Torokvei to write the story of Annette Funicello's life, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, which they shot in 1995.
Late one night in 2001, I was at home sorting through a stack of mail. My wife and kids were asleep upstairs. I grabbed a handful of Wheat Thins and sat down to open up the awaiting bills and letters. At the bottom of the stack was a letter addressed to me, my name scribbled across the nondescript Avery envelope in a handwriting I knew was familiar. I tore it open to find a letter with "Torokvei" lettered across the top. It was a Xerox of a letter addressed to something akin to "My Closest Friends and Family." What followed was a (not surprisingly) clever and pithy letter announcing the arrival of our friend's 50th birthday. The voice was unmistakably PJ's, and I was laughing immediately.Instead PJ wrote about her fears about what her transitioning could do to destroy her family and friend relationships as well as her career.
About halfway through the letter, PJ announced that he -- to that point known to us as Peter -- had made a very difficult decision. He was choosing to go public with the secret that he'd always felt trapped -- as a female in a man's body -- and that he planned to have surgery to change his sex. At this point, I thought I was reading the cleverest 50th birthday letter of all time. Somewhere soon would arrive a punchline to really make me split my sides.
That punchline never came.
Peter informed me that he had to live as a woman for a year before a surgeon would do the operation. We talked often that year. We even pitched a movie to Showtime with his former writing partner from WKRP. With each subsequent visit Peter was transforming. And it wasn't easy. Long hours of electrolysis, heavy doses of hormones. Pierced ears. Learning how to put on fake eyelashes. I heard it all, and always with humor. I began to understand the painful double life he led to this point. At one juncture, I asked him, “Why not just be gay and come out of the closet?” Peter's answer was all too obvious and drove home his anguish.A few days before her surgery…
“If only it was that easy. I wish I could do that. I'm not a man. I'm not attracted to gay men. No more than heterosexual women are attracted to them.”
I had my “a-ha moment.”
I asked her if she thought she'd be an attractive woman of a certain age. And with her characteristic humor she replied, “I was hoping for Christie Brinkley, I fear I'm heading toward Bea Arthur.”Some of PJ's friends and family members never spoke to her again after that coming out letter. She retreated into the privacy of her own home in Ojai and eventually moved to a farm in Victoria, in her native Canada.
While I could never hope to understand the pain and sadness PJ experienced, I learned that friendship can come in any shape, size or color. And that my friend PJ was no different than my friend Peter.PJ suffered complications from her reassignment surgery and was in and out of the hospital. Brock says those hospital stays tended to make her sicker, not more healthy.
One of the funniest scenes I can remember from WKRP…and perhaps one of the funniest television scenes ever:
Rest in Peace, PJ.