Gary Horton | Life Motivation from the Luckiest Man on Earth

Gary Horton
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Tis a fearful thing  / To love what death can touch… 

For your life has lived in me, / Your laugh once lifted me 

Your word was gift to me. / To remember this brings painful joy. 

‘Tis a human thing, love, / A holy thing, to love 

What death has touched. 

— Rabbi Chaim Stern 

Our beloved neighbor and treasured friend, Duncan Henderson, recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. His memorial was held at the Broad Theater in Santa Monica this past Sunday. 

Funerals and memorials can often be sad affairs, leaving participants with grief, loss and regrets. While losing Duncan is tragic beyond words to describe, still, this memorial left us motivated, upbeat and oh so happy to have known Duncan. Shining a spotlight on Duncan’s remarkable family and singularly spectacular career, Duncan’s memorial left all attendees with a renewed commitment to live our best lives, do our best work, to stand up for what’s good and to intensely love those around us. 

Getting pumped up from a memorial? Oh, yes, Duncan lived that kind of a bigger-than-life, life. His story is that of a boundless, self-determined life that was as impressive in accomplishments, as Duncan would often say, “lucky.” Indeed, Duncan would often respond to, “How are you doing?” with the answer, “I’m feeling lucky! I was born lucky, I’m lucky today, and I’ll be lucky tomorrow!” 

Duncan’s trademark quip reflects both his confidence in his abilities as well as his self-aware humility to know he’d been blessed through his life. Unabashed optimism, blended with opportunity and unlimited work ethic, drove Duncan to achieve great things most can never even imagine. His memorial not only celebrated his life per se, but also celebrated the art and habit of living life well. Duncan’s life exemplified a life lived very well. 

A SoCal native, Duncan attended public schools, culminating in his attending UCLA, where he led the crew team to two West Coast Championships. After graduating, Duncan continued to USC, earning an advanced business degree. Thereafter, Duncan worked as a stockbroker for a period when either an itch or an epiphany drove him to pursue a more rewarding career in Hollywood filmmaking. Jumping from stocks to major motion picture producer might seem too wide a chasm for most everyone – but it was a challenge Duncan confidently took on. The legacy of his Hollywood achievements led to Duncan receiving the Frank Capra Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America.  

Duncan had just returned from a long stay in South America, producing his last motion picture, when he received the unfortunate diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer. Duncan was a young 72, full of vitality, with new offers always on the table. Through his long Hollywood career, Duncan rose through the ranks to produce some of America’s most favorite movies. “Harry Potter.” “Dead Poets Society.” “Master and Commander,” and an A-List of others that could fill this page. 

Duncan would tell us during talks on the driveway or by the mailbox or at an occasional couples’ dinner about much of the silliness and politics of Hollywood – none of which he suffered or tolerated. Duncan was cut and dry about right and wrong; he was consummately ethical and loyal. And his unique commitment to high personal principles made him an esteemed producer to keep movies on time, on budget, crafted to highest standards. His work took him and often his whole family to points throughout the globe. To Iceland with Tom Cruise. To the Galapagos Islands with Russell Crowe. To filming mice with Gina Davis in “Stuart Little.” And to that famous fight scene where Rocky battled that threateningly dangerous Russian… 

Duncan got to see, experience and create experiences the rest of us can only hope to imagine. All this success might have knocked lesser individuals off their values and principles. Not so with Duncan. A straighter arrow perhaps never flew.  

Duncan and his wife Michelle became neighbors across the driveway 33 years ago. Despite fame, Duncan never moved from the home where he raised his kids. Never needed glitz and self-aggrandizement. Instead of vanity, Duncan was known both on and off the set simply as that “tall guy with the suspenders.” He had his own signature look: Slacks, button collared shirt, and suspenders. Fun, but all business when business was on. 

Characteristically direct, about five months ago Duncan stopped Carrie and I by the sidewalk as we pulled out of our driveway. With teary eyes he approached us and explained his cancer diagnosis. He was stoic, and well understood the implications of his disease. But he wasn’t there to burden us with his problems. Instead, in Duncan fashion, he straightforwardly shared his appreciation for our neighborhood, for us being neighbors and friends, and especially that our kids were able to grow up together so tightly.  

Duncan knew he had lived a blessed and full life. A life very much of his own effort and doing, yet also blessed so much by those who loved and cared for him. At the memorial, his oldest daughter shared that even late into the disease, Duncan said he had no regrets and no resentment for having fallen to cancer. Instead, Duncan used his last four months to more closely bond with and love his family. And he also lived long enough to meet his new grandson, also Duncan. 

“I’m the luckiest man on Earth!” shared Duncan before his passing. 

A motivational memorial? Absolutely. Duncan has everyone there wanting to live better, do better and to find joy and meaning in the unknown time we have remaining. 

…The unknown time we have remaining… 

We will all leave legacies of the lives we’ve lived. Duncan Henderson’s legacy is astonishingly incredible and motivational. Hearing more of his life made me want to make more of mine, to do better, be better, and to live more meaningfully. 

Thank you, Duncan. You were an amazing man from the first time we met, and your influence will never pass. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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