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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #17: William Parrish

You're not Death. You're just a kid in a suit.

I love the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, even though it has its share of problems. It's too long, it's too saccharine in places, and Brad Pitt's performance is wooden. On the plus side, it's gorgeously shot, has a wonderful score, and has Anthony Hopkins delivering a masterful performance in the role of dying billionaire William Parrish.

The movie is a remake of the 1934 play Death Takes a Holiday, and has Pitt playing the part of the vacationing Reaper. He wants a guide to show him the good stuff, so he chooses Parrish, who by all accounts has led a singular life. A widower with two daughters (including Claire Forlani at her most delectable), Parrish isn't shy about dispensing the wisdom he's accumulated during his years, especially on the topics of love and passion. He's a big believer in these things, Bill Parrish is, and it's these axioms that give the movie its spine and its ultimately satisfying ending.

"Love is passion, obsession, someone you can't live without. I say, fall head over heels. Find someone you can love like crazy and who will love you the same way back...To make the journey and not fall deeply in love, well, you haven't lived a life at all...Stay open. You never know. Lightning could strike."

By the final act, the big party for Parrish's 65th birthday, both the viewer and Bill know that time is short. "Sixty five years," he says to his gathered family and friends, "don't they go by in a blink?" It's a line I've repeated to myself many times, watching children grow and friends age (not to mention my own aging). And at the very end, having said his goodbyes, as he prepares to journey into the unknown, he and Death (the titular Joe Black) have one final exchange:

William Parrish: "It's hard to let go, isn't it?" Joe Black: "Yes it is, Bill." William Parrish: "What can I tell you? That's life."

In my own life, there's been no shortage of things and people I've had to lose, to give up, to let go, and this line has always resonated with me. And in the end, I believe that's what great fictional characters do - they speak to truths in our own lives. Meet Joe Black isn't a perfect, or perhaps even a great movie. But William Parrish speaks to me.

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