One day, Bozo the Clown asked me to write about the time someone tried to assassinate him when he ran for President.
It was cognitive overload. There was too much going on in that sentence:
1.) It was Bozo the Clown, the biggest celebrity in my Chicago childhood.
2.) He ran for President? I never knew that. That’s amazing.
3.) And someone tried to assassinate him! What’s wrong with this world?
One of the great things about being a writer is that every now and then, someone amazing asks you to write a book about them. And you get to step into their shoes—in this case size 83 AAA shoes—and immerse yourself in their sensational life.
And so I got to know Larry Harmon, who bought the rights to Bozo in 1956,
franchised it around the world, and made Bozo the most popular clown in the world--and the inspiration for every character from Ronald McDonald to Krusty the Clown. He was one of the happiest, most outgoing people I’ve ever met, and truly embodied the spirit of childhood in an adult. It was a shame to lose him just a couple of years after meeting. But he made an indelible impact on me, and was an unforgettable role model for aging not gracefully but boisterously.
I wrote this sample chapter below in order to get a book deal for Bozo. I even started an imprint of HarperCollins for it, Igniter Books, and a great author and friend named Scott McKenzie ended up writing the full book, which had Larry’s dream title: The Man Behind the Nose.
“You have to recognize the truth because it stands all by itself,” Harmon always said. And so, here, for the first time, is the actual story of the assassination attempts on Bozo’s life, as told to me in Harmon’s own words…
Bozo For President
I was in Dallas when the phone call came.
“Sooner or later, clown,” the caller said, “you gotta leave your room. And when you do, I’m waiting. I’m going to kill you.”
My dream, my goal, my passion was just to keep people laughing. I never thought it would lead to three assassination attempts in a single month.
It began, like most stories do, at Richard M. Nixon’s desk. The year was 1984, and my size 83 shoes were crammed between the chair and the wastebasket. I could hear the winter wind whistle through the trees outside as I wrote a speech that I hoped would change the course of the world: Bozo was running for President.
Size 83 shoes.
I had just arrived at the Watergate Hotel in the nation’s capital, sick from the flu but keeping up appearances in full Bozo costume. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to breathe wearing a big red nose, but add in congestion, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe at all. My voice was gone and I had to take spoonfuls of honey just to croak a few sentences at a time. I had to give the speech of my life the next day and I didn’t know what to say or how I would say it.
The owner of the hotel and his children were big fans, so they’d put me in Nixon’s chambers to prepare my speech for the following day at the Washington Press Club. The suite had two bedrooms, a huge living room, and a dining room with a table that sat twelve. It was fit for a president.
Nixon had this important looking mahogany desk, facing floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the Potomac River. I asked everyone to leave me alone and decided to just write what was in my heart.
Larry Harmon (right) without the Bozo makeup.
Sitting in his chair, with my oversized red shoes jammed under his desk and the winter sun reflecting off the icy Potomac I got to work. I had no time to change. I was still wearing my red wig, red nose, white face makeup, and blue costume. It was dark when I finished my speech and got up from Nixon’s desk.
The next day, a woman from the press club introduced me to an onslaught of microphones, cameras, lights, and reporters. I balanced a pair of glasses on my red nose because they made me look like a statesman, and as I stepped to the stage, she boomed out, “Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Larry “Bozo” Harmon!”
In that wonderful moment, as I stepped to the podium to a roar of applause, I had no idea of the dangers I would face as I hit the campaign trail immediately afterward.
I knew I could handle a crowd. That’s been my trade. And I knew I could do a job, no matter what it was. As I talked to the fine people of this country, listened to their woes, and saw politically what was going on, I knew I’d make a good president. The one thing I didn’t count on was being assassinated. I mean, people don’t walk into a campaign thinking that or Bobby Kennedy would have never run. Nobody wants to die.
Back then, Reagan was president. I remember seeing him and talking to him years earlier when he led the Screen Actors Guild. At one point, I even went out with one of his girlfriends, a blonde from Nebraska. So I knew a lot more about Reagan than a lot of people did.
Reagan as Screen Actors Guild president testifying at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.
When he ran for election, the low voter turnouts were atrocious. We have such a super country. The best country in the world. You can do anything in this fine land. I stuttered as a child and struggled at the bottom of my class in school, yet I became this famous entertainer. That’s the kind of life possible in this country.
But so many people don’t want to get involved. Boy, do they get excited, swear, holler, rant, and rave about the leader of the country. But if you want to exercise the right to holler, then you have to exercise the right to vote. Otherwise you should be hollering at yourself.
So during Reagan’s re-election, I wanted to help in some way and encourage people to vote. So I talked to some political folks in Washington I knew like Art Buchwald. And they said, “Why don’t you run for the presidency of the United States?”
“I don’t want to be president,” I answered. I liked what I was doing at the time and wanted to keep making people laugh.
“But you don’t understand,” they pushed. “You stand out in the country, in the world, as Bozo. And the Bozo cause will make them vote. If you run for the presidency legitimately—not as a lark, as a funster, or a prank—and register in every state and do what you have to do, you’ll get a lot of people to listen.”
Sometimes in life, certain doors open, and if you walk through them, things will never be the same. Taking a step in red size-83 shoes is like walking in scuba flippers. It’s not an easy thing to do. But when those doors open, I march through them as confidently as a soldier on dress parade.
I decided to target young people. I wanted to go to every college campus I could get to in the United States – Columbia, Ohio State, Harvard, Yale, Georgia Tech – and lead big rallies.
Bozo for President campaign contribution flyer.
I knew they wouldn’t turn away, or not listen, because it’s their old pal Bozo. At one rally in Georgia, this huge gust of wind came up and almost blew my wig off. I had one hand holding my wig and one hand holding the microphone. But it didn’t matter. I told them, “I’m your old pal, Bozo. I’ve been in your homes for most of thirty years and I’ve given you nothing but fun, laughter, help, and inspiration. As the President of the United States, I can bring those same things back to you.”
They ate it up. Because, you see, all you have to do is find the truth. You have to recognize the truth because it stands all by itself. And no one can deny that.
I campaigned on Dolly Parton’s bus. It wasn’t easy because most of me didn’t fit. The bathroom was so small not only were my shoes too long, but my wig wouldn’t fit in the door. There were tons of people on that bus: Photographers, reporters, assistants, family. And I had three or four “special service people” for protection.
Dolly Parton and her tour bus.
One of the security guys was over seven feet tall. He was on the Cleveland police force, a black belt in Kung Fu, and a ranked experts in .45 pistol marksmanship. Someone stole his pants on that trip. I can’t imagine what kind of person could wear drawers that large. Maybe the thief needed curtains. I called the guy Cleveland, and he saved my life.
Cleveland shadowed me, babied me, and watched me like a hawk. I never walked into a room alone. He always went in first and checked the closets, the bedroom, the bathroom, everywhere.
As we were walking into my room in Dallas, the call came. When Cleveland answered, the caller thought it was me and delivered the death threat.
Cleveland just turned to me and said, “We got trouble right here in River City.”
Now, I had been in the Navy during the war. And I’d had my share of scuffles over the course of this crazy life. But when someone threatens to kill you, that’s a whole new ballgame.
On the campaign trail.
“I don’t know how many of them there are,” he said. “Maybe just one. But if there’s one thing we can’t possibly have happen—not possibly—is have you killed in Dallas. Nobody will ever come to Dallas again. They got Kennedy, and now they got Bozo the Clown. What a terrible piece of history that would be.”
So Cleveland calls the chief of police in Dallas. And he shows up at the hotel with all these people. They don’t know where the caller was hidden or what kinds of weapons were involved. They’re nervous and the reporters are banging at the door to see what’s going on.
“You’ve got to get out of here,” the police chief said. “We’ll do whatever we can to get you back on the bus so you can get to Houston.”
The coincidence of facing assassination in Dallas was not lost on me. As a child, I was fascinated by politicians: Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower. I listened to their speeches on the radio before I knew anything about the world. But John F. Kennedy was the one who planted the seed. I spoke to him on the phone when was in the Oval Office, and he said, “Let us not ask what we can do for Bozo. Let us ask what Bozo can do for us.”
Now, many years later, I faced death in the same place he did.
Texas Rangers, city police officers, sheriff’s department staff, my special service folks, everyone gathered in my room and surrounded me. We stormed through the door, down the hallway, and jammed into the elevator. Every single one of us squeezed into one car. We reached the ground floor, the door opened, and another big throng of people joined us, carrying me along through the lobby like a rushing wave.
Because I was such a noticeable target, the men around me were three or four deep. Once they had rushed me onto the bus, we thought everything was okay.
But then we heard screaming. The police all raced off the bus. And camera flashes went off in rapid fire in the hotel lobby.
They had found a woman by the payphone. She was dressed in all white with baggies over her hands and feet. She had a gun and was out to get me. In the hotel, the payphones were on one side of the lobby and the elevators were nearby. She was stationed by those phones, waiting for me to get off the elevator. She just hadn’t expected my security entourage.
“She says you’re a threat to the American people,” the police chief later told me. “She claims you’re gonna put the nation in a terrible position and cozy up to the Communists.”
Earlier that day, I had spoken to a bunch of Dallas radio broadcasters in the airport. “Why do you want to be president?” they wanted to know. “What are you going to do if you win?” All the big questions. And one reporter asked, “What is the first thing you want to do in the White House?”
I replied that I wanted to talk to Khrushchev. “I know he’s got a grandchild,” I explained. “And the first thing I want to do is go to Russia, get off the plane, meet with Khruschev, and lift up his grandchild who I know he loves a great deal. I want to ask him, ‘Is this what you want to happen? Do you want this little grandchild you love to never grow up? Never have a chance to live and enjoy this beautiful world?’ If we get together with Russia, we can save our world and save our grandkids.”
President Kennedy with Nikita Khruschev.
When we select a president, we’re just looking for the best storyteller: FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton all told good stories. So I was able to tell a good yarn about going to Russia to meet Nikita Khrushchev, but it darn near got me killed.
The next time someone tried to assassinate me was just a week later, at the University of California in Davis. I was on the stage speaking to thousands of kids on the lawn.
I told them, “I plan on taking calls. Every Thursday morning, you get the White House number and call your old pal Bozo. Tell me what’s happening in your life. Tell me your problems. Tell me about your kids. I’ll help you.”
As I was speaking, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye. There was this kid on a bicycle. He was no older than twenty, with long black hair that would have normally hung down over his face. But he was pedaling so fast that his hair flew behind him like a racehorse’s tail. He was oblivious to to the kids on the lawn, to security guards, to everything. He was just racing toward me like he had been shot out of a cannon.
When he was seven feet away, I realized that he was coming straight for me. And, with his right hand, he was gripping a knife against the handlebars. Then, suddenly, Cleveland pounced on him. He seemed to completely engulf the kid. Then he lifted the kid and the bicycle into the air, carried them to a police car sitting nearby, and tossed them both into the back seat, as casually as if he were taking out the trash.
I’m not sure if there was a third assassination attempt. All I can tell you is that something went wrong at one of our last stops on the campaign trail, at Miami University in Ohio. They had this big stage set up, with Bozo banners all over it, and a police escort to takes us there. The school band struck up as “God Bless America” as our bus stopped by the side of the stage and I stepped out.
The mayor made a speech giving me the key to the city. As I waved to the crowd, with my baggy blue pants rippled in the breeze, suddenly I was raised into the air. It felt like I was snatched by the hand of God. Cleveland had grabbed me by the back of my shirt and the seat of my pants, and slung me onto the bus. He shook his fist and yelled at a group of thugs standing by the stage, then jumped on the bus after me. The bus pitched to one side with the weight of his landing, and we screeched out of town.
“What happened?” I asked Cleveland.
“While you were going to accept the key to the city, those guys were saying, ‘This is it! Get him!’ So I took care of the situation.”
I wasn’t a member of any party so voters had to write my name on the ballot. They wrote it two million times. I may not have accomplished the goal of becoming the next president and teaching Khrushchev a lesson about being a grandfather, but I did accomplish the goal of getting more young people to vote. Hopefully, those kids went on to participate in elections for the rest of their lives – all because a clown approached them when no one else ever did.
The Democrats ended up losing the election, and Reagan was put back in office. Immediately afterward, some members of the Democratic Party contacted me and wanted to meet at a roadside dinner outside Valdosta, Georgia. I showed up, and watched as two guys from Washington wearing bureaucratic suits pulled up in a Ford Crown Victoria.
“We want you to run in the next election,” this one guy with freckles said. “We will absolutely, positively guarantee that you will be President of the United States.”
“Nah,” I told him. “We got a good number of votes. The people love Bozo. But it’s over for us.”
“You just need help,” Freckles said. There wasn’t much room under the table, and he stepped on my shoes as he continued. “You’ve been out there, you’ve been stumping for all these months and you’ve had such great things to say. And the country loves Bozo! It’ll be a slam-dunk. We can put the money, and the machinery, of the Democratic Party behind you.”
We talked it over as our coffee grew cold and the scent of fried chicken filled the dining room. But I said no. I had made my point. I had made two million points. And I knew I had gotten lucky on the campaign trail. If I got in the White House, there would just be more people trying to kill me. So I declined. They ended up with Dukakis, who got beat—as you know—for releasing that convict. But, funnily enough, a Bozo ended up in the White House a few years later, when Bob Dole agreed with supporters that his aim was to “get that Bozo out of the White House.”
President Bill Clinton debating Senator Bob Dole in 1996.
I have no doubt I could have been a good president, but I was born to entertain, to make people laugh, to instill hope, to inspire. I don’t need legislators and lobbyists to accomplish my goals for this country. I just need my wig, my shoes, my nose, and my ability to make people laugh. Those things are more powerful than any law.
Larry "Bozo" Harmon died in 2008 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. He continues to be missed by his loved ones around the world. You can read his beautifully designed and told book here: http://amzn.to/2EeTP4U