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Little Dudley Happy at Last

The worst ‘Six Weeks’ — and the worst years — of his life are now over

Dudley Moore

Dudley Moore, 1979

Keystone/Getty

1 Happiness
THE MAESTRO ADDRESSES THE ORCHESTRA.
“A little more timpani crescendo at the end, please. And also, more horns.” He sings it for them: “Dee dee dee dee dit!” Then, he commands: “From bar three. And…one two three, one two….”

The maestro flogs the air. Sixty-seven headphone-wearing musicians hit the down-beat. A rich fullness bounds earward.

Dudley Moore, for indeed it is he facing the music, throws himself into it headlong, body rocking, arms flailing, sweat glands pumping. Tomorrow, he’ll be stiff all over.

Overhead, a big movie screen lights up, and there are two actresses whirling about in a happy mother-daughter rhapsody. Credits start crawling over them. Music and film surge to an emotional finish. Darkness and silence.

“Okay, let’s try one more!” says the maestro.

They do it again. Afterward, he scampers through a door into a “monitor booth” –– really a rather large room –– where technicians preside over a huge control panel and theater-size speakers hang from the ceiling.

“How’d it sound in here?” asks Dudley. Fine, he’s told. The soundmen play it back. Dudley sits at the panel, listening intently, singing softly, his eyes closed, his hands still conducting. “The brass seemed a bit distant,” he says. He pronounces it bross. “Can we bring them up?”

Soon, he’s rushing back out to the orchestra to record the next section. What a performance! What energy! Isn’t it enough that he’s the hottest actor in Hollywood, gets $2.5 million per movie, has three (three!!) movies in the can –– one of them his first dramatic role –– and yet a fourth starting soon! No. He also has to go write the score and conduct the orchestra on one of them and…finally…gasp…rush over to a piano to play the solo part himself. Great leaping versatilities! There’s so much virtuoso action to digest here that a gulf of twelve or maybe even fifteen seconds elapses before the befuddled Dudley-watcher realizes that the person quietly pulling muse duty on a stool behind his piano is the tall, tan, blond and extremely voluptuous Susan Anton, light of Dudley’s life and object of impure thoughts from significantly large numbers of American males.

What a show! And it’s undeniably impressive. Even a musical illiterate can see that ole Dud knows what he’s doing. He’s relaxed on the podium, easily in control, confident enough to clown at times, push at others. At one point, he decides to insert a brand new chunk of music into the score and writes the instrumental parts on the spot, scooting from section to section, instructing the musicans: “Okay, you play a, b, b, a, then….” After one key portion is completed, the orchestra applauds him.

They’re not alone. Everyone is applauding Dudley Moore. It is October 1982, and Dudley’s in heaven. After years of being a successful British actor-comedian (i.e., an unknown), he broke through to Hollywood (i.e., global) stardom with “10” and Arthur. After years of neurotic unhappiness (which Dudley, unlike most presidential candidates or your mother, never tried to conceal), he is threatening to become a happy person. And now he’s done his first more or less dramatic role in this lovely movie for which he’s written the music, and he’s very satisfied, loves the film, thinks it’s the best work he’s ever done.

It’s titled Six Weeks.

2 Despair
OH MY GOD.
It’s two months later. Six Weeks has opened. The world is vomiting all over it.

What happened? What went wrong?

Dudley feels like someone just slugged him in the stomach. He is devastated. What he can’t understand is the vehemence, the total scorn being heaped on the movie by some of the critics. Time‘s review is headlined GHOUL’S DELIGHT. The first sentence reads, “Before we go on, a swig of Maalox is indicated.” The New York Times, in its more restrained fashion, merely avers that the film is strained, farfetched, unconvincing, incredible.

Maybe, he will reflect later, the timing was not so hot, opening at Christmas, the season to be jolly, a movie about a sweet girl who keels over dead from leukemia on a New York subway car. Maybe the ads took the wrong slant. Maybe the title misled….But really he just can’t understand. This film was so sensitive, so tender….Every time he sees it, he feels joyful, for chrissake! Not ghoulish!

Tony Bill, the director of Six Weeks, sends Dudley whatever favorable reviews turn up. He tells Dudley the old Hollywood joke about the typical star career as depicted through the evolving reactions of the studio bigwigs: (1) Who’s Dudley Moore? (2) Get me Dudley Moore. (3) Get me a Dudley Moore type. (4) Get me a young Dudley Moore. (5) Who’s Dudley Moore?

Dudley thinks it’s a hilarious joke. He doesn’t believe it really applies to him. After all, he didn’t make it on youth, face and figure, but on talent.

But, Lord, the ups and downs!

It’s enough to make you come wide awake sweaty bolt upright in the middle of the night wondering just what the hell is going on here. Dudley does. “I’ll always wonder what happened,” he says.

But this is too depressing. Let us return to that happier time, the pre-Six Weeks era, before all this horror descended.

3 Happiness Revisited
PRESTO! JUST LIKE THAT, IT’S OCTOBER again, and we’re driving off the MGM lot, carefully threading through its thespian-choked alleys to avoid running over movie stars who might sue for millions, then making for a favorite eatery of Dudley’s. It has nouvelle cuisine (i.e., small portions) and subtropical jungle growth creeping in on the fringes, threatening to swallow up the casual but chic diners, who are too hip to stare when Dudley, in his jeans and rumpled pullover, trudges in with a couple of carryalls and is greeted happily by the owner.

One would guess, says the interviewer as Dudley sips a Bloody Mary, that you approached this Six Weeks role, a departure from your usual antics, with some apprehension and caution.

Wrong.

He just…took it. He doesn’t go in for protracted struggles with himself over role picking. Nor does he agonize about acting technique. His first dramatic role? Tough work? “It was sort of embarrassingly easy,” he says. “I go for the point of least resistance. I say, ‘Well, this seems right, this feels natural.'” No Hamleting about like those method-ridden Yanks. He leaps in jauntily as though acting were fun. No agonies of indecision for Dudley.

“I spent too much time agonizing about my life,” he says.

Now, as the food comes, the talk turns to psychotherapy, which Dudley underwent, on and off, for about sixteen years. When he started it, he felt depressed, he felt guilty, he felt inhibited, he felt out of touch with his own emotions, particularly his anger.

He talks about this pain easily, extensively. Suddenly, he spots a hair in his lettuce. Whoops! He now turns into a waiter reciting the daily specials: “yes, we have these Armenian hairs cooked in sesame oil. We call it hair-food salad.”

Dudley has this amusing tendency to switch lanes –– sometimes in midsentence –– veering from serious to comic, and back. As in movies, so in life. Frequently, the swerves are highly lascivious. At lunch today, he displays a Harpo-like libido, a kind of sensual smoke alarm. Anytime an attractive female heaves into view, a lewd reference instantly appears in the midst of whatever thought he is uttering. Like so: “I think it’s a very hard process,” he is saying, “coming to terms with one’s own rage. I think the level of [waitress passes table] big tits –– I mean anger –– was so great….I was so out of contact with it, you know.” He giggles. “Two big mounds of suppressed anger! When someone first suggested that I was angry, I was shocked, you know. I think most people are. They don’t realize how angry they are, and when you point it out, they say, ‘What? Never!'”

Hedonist he truly is. Guilts banished now, passions and appetites abound. Music, sex, comedy, food. He loves chocolate desserts. Loves –– here, now, what can this mean? –– salt! Pours a mound on his plate and dredges each bite of food in salt before putting it in his mouth. (Anyone see profound psychological meaning there? Pouring salt on psychic wounds? Fuel for his salty tongue? Send in your insights, please.) An odd, endearing passion that.

Next, to Dudley’s house we go. It’s a three-bedroom abode in chic Marina del Rey. Pure Southern Cal: On the street out front, legions of roller skaters glide past, propelled by Walkman music. Cops in short pants patrol on bikes. Back yard’s the Pacific. (A couple of months from now, the winter monsoons will turn the beach into an utter mess strewn with debris and heaped high with sand levees, but right now it’s happy time, and we don’t want to think about that.)

Inside is white and beige, light and air. Sea breeze wafts in the windows. Plants wave hi. There’s a Hammond organ against one wall with a book on it: Handel’s Six Organ Concertos. There’s a huge black Yamaha concert grand piano with composition paper on it. Here, Dudley plays jazz, writes his music, weeps.

“When I write, I have to be wiped out by it,” he says, “which generally means that I’m blubbering like a fool. I mean, I have to be moved gigantically by it to feel satisfied. That’s what music is to me –– a very emotional experience.” There’s a small, black, fluffy caninoid named Kong, yapping and scampering. There’s a housekeeper bustling about, and a secretary, too. There are phone calls coming in on several lines. “Help!” says Dudley in comic panic. “It’s really getting out of hand. My niece is getting married. I’m trying to arrange a surprise party for Susan –– it’s her birthday. There are dubbing sessions, interviews. It’s driving me nuts!”

4 Total Utter Misery
Now, we must, in order to achieve some sense of completeness here, revert to the worst time of all, the pre-Hollywood epoch. Little joy at the start. Woe came even to the fetal Dudley, who emerged, forty-seven years ago, with a clubfoot: the left foot was small, twisted inward and misshapen. For the first seven years, life was casts, splints, wheelchairs, corrective devices, hospitals, surgery. Finally, his mother called a halt to the operations, though one more was possible, one in which the leg is broken and the inward-turned foot is twisted straight. “They felt I was getting very upset by all the solitary confinement,” he says. “I remember my mother’s saying that the hospital got word to her that I was pining away because they hadn’t visited me. I think I was traumatized by it.” Fear of abandonment would become a lasting motif, hooking up with anger buildup to produce, in adulthood, a classic psychowhammy for him in relationships with women: Scared that she’ll abandon you if you show your anger, you stifle it and kill her with quiet venom. So you lose her.

The family lived in the working-class London suburb of Dagenham. His father was a railway electrician, his mother a secretary and the daughter of a faith healer. There was an older sister, too. “There was a veil of religiosity over the house,” Dudley has said. “And a great deal of guilt, shame, anxiety and fear.” Dudley himself was a small, solemn boy with a limp and quite a lot of bottled-up rage. He once said in an interview with a London newspaper: “I had special boots, and –– just like Rumpelstiltskin –– the only way I could express my rage was by stamping on the floor until it collapsed and gave way. It was my leg onto which I projected all my feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.”

In school, he was known as a swot: the kid who asks for more homework, not a popular type. Add to that the physical defect and its psychological effects, and you have a classic target for bullying. Dudley adopted the classic defense: clowning. “The usual comedian’s sob story,” he says. It became another lasting motif. It improved his popularity, but his grades suffered, and so did his self-esteem. “Many years later, in therapy, having realized the mechanics of what had happened to me, I stopped trying to be funny at all. I wanted to spend a year not cracking a smile, almost as a reaction to all those years of being a sycophantic creep.”

Solace came in music. Dudley started playing the piano at around age six, and his mother arranged for him to take lessons. At eleven, he took up the violin. He also sang –– “twelve years in the local church choir, as a boy soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Whatever was needed, I used to bleat out. I loved singing in the choir, and I actually miss it even now.” At about fifteen, he started playing the organ for weddings and other church services, and he became assistant organist. It was (with the schoolyard clowning) the start of his performing. He so loved church music that as adulthood loomed, he thought of becoming a church organist and choirmaster. He applied for an organ scholarship to Oxford.

The foot no longer affected his mobility. Though one leg was half an inch shorter, Dudley wore a specially made shoe with a lift and was able to play cricket and soccer. But the organ pedals did present a problem, as his bad foot needed still more elevation. Dudley’s solution was to take an old shoe of his mother’s, build an extra heel onto it, cut a groove in the sole and strap on the shoe so that his toes were pulled up to an angle at which he could forcefully tread the pedals. “It was an extraordinary-looking thing, and I remember going for my organ scholarship at Oxford and saying, ‘Will you excuse me? I just have to put this contraption on.’ And out comes this old brown shoe of my mother’s with this boot lace tied around the back of my leg. I was very self-conscious about my foot; I always have been. For me to do that was an indication of how much I wanted to get into university.”

About a year ago, Dudley happened to run into his old organ tutor at Oxford. The tutor said that some time ago, they’d stumbled across a rather strange device in the organ loft at Magdalen College, and there had been curiosity about what the hell it was. Finally, someone remembered Dudley and his mother’s shoe.

At aristocratic Oxford, insecure, working-class Dudley was again in social trouble. “There were all these seemingly smooth, polished young men from public [British for private] schools, and they seemed to be very fey with the world, as if it belonged to them. I felt very inferior. I started to ape their speech, because I had a sloppy suburban-London accent. Of course, I stood out anyway, because I couldn’t reproduce it too well. And when I got back to Dagenham, people there thought I sounded rather strange.”

Musical solace was still there, but now the sacred began to give way to the profane. “At sixteen, I’d been seduced by the sins of jazz, and then at Oxford by cabaret and revue. I gradually realized that I liked the idea of performing in rather less inhibited surroundings than church. My tutor at Oxford offered me a post at Queen’s College –– it involved being a tutor and also the organist and choirmaster for the college –– and I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ But then I went back about five minutes later and said, ‘I don’t think this would be the life for me.’ “

So instead of becoming a choirmaster after graduation, he joined one of England’s best big jazz bands, the Vic Lewis Orchestra. He was less than a smash. “I played exclusively –– and slightly awkwardly –– in the style of Erroll Garner, who was not a band pianist by any means, and some of the guys in the band would get really pissed off and told me so to my face.” But joining the band had brought Dudley to London, and he plunged into all kinds of music projects, from writing commercial jingles to composing for the theater. His first triumph, though, would come in yet a different form.

An Oxford friend had become assistant to the director of the Edinburgh Festival, a prestigious drama-and-music showcase, and he wanted to add a late-hour, college-style comedy revue. He tapped Dudley, who’d done revues at Oxford, and Dudley recruited a former classmate, Alan Bennett. Two Cambridge alumni, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook, were also in the show.

The four met over a meal and, according to Miller, “instantly disliked one another and decided that it might be a profitable enterprise.” They were right. They invented a near-instant legend and cult classic titled Beyond the Fringe. From Edinburgh, it would jump to London, knock the West End on its ear and then, amazingly, repeat the triumph on Broadway.

In its day, Beyond the Fringe was considered daring, irreverent, even offensive. Today, though the quality of the humor holds up, the satire seems quite mild. Perhaps the times were more timid. That Peter Cook, for instance, did an imitation of the incumbent prime minister was shocking to the British. Certainly it was shocking to the prime minister. “I remember the night Harold Macmillan came in,” says Dudley. “It was quite strange. Peter was actually very fond of Macmillan, but he made him out to be some sort of a doddering fart. The whole time Peter did the sketch, Macmillan studiously looked through his program.”

Dudley tends to downplay his own contribution to the show. “I was responsible for very little except the music,” he says. “I mean the verbiage was all Jonathan’s, Peter’s and Alan’s. And a lot of that was mainly Peter.”

You felt slightly inferior to the others?

“Vastly. They were taller and comparatively at ease with life, it seemed. Of course [shouting into the tape recorder], they’ve proven me wrong since then….Just kidding! Just kidding! But I was very unaware. I was very unversed in philosophy, politics and literature. I couldn’t contribute in those areas. What did I know? I tried teaching them a musical sketch, but it was totally hopeless. None of them was particularly musical.”

Dudley’s music wasn’t mere filler, though; it was musical parody –– a Brechtian opera, for instance, sung in ersatz German –– and well received. And his talent for clowning added to the show’s strength. Beyond the Fringe won him and the others a measure of fame in England –– much more than it did here –– and it began his long and highly successful partnership with Peter Cook, which thrived in at least four different media and produced some of the funniest comedy of the past two decades.

There was a BBC series, there were comedy albums, and there was their two-man stage show, Good Evening (in England, it was called Behind the Fridge). There were movies. Cook and Moore did a passel of them in the Sixties: The Wrong Box, The Bed Sitting Room, the hilarious Bedazzled.

In the mind of Hollywood, though, Dudley Moore never existed till he was “discovered” in Foul Play in 1978 and given his star in “10.” Peter Cook still doesn’t exist, though to some people, they’ve both been stars for over twenty years. (Whether the two will work together again is an open question. It’s not inconceivable, but it seems unlikely to happen soon.)

Cook is a tall, supercilious-looking man with a glacial manner that seems to radiate contempt for all life forms. But he is extraordinarily funny –– glib, quick, with an elegant style and a talent for piling absurdity on absurdity. Like so many of his repressed countrymen, Cook has always disapproved of his friend’s propensity for blabbing all his angst to the press, and he thinks even less of Dudley’s enthusiasm for psychotherapy. “God knows where he’ll turn next,” Cook would lament. “Group therapy, the primal scream or, with a bit of bad luck, the Reverend Ike. He’s open to any new theory.”

Both physically and emotionally, I suggest, the two seem complete opposites.

“Yeah, we are,” says Dudley,” and I think that’s the reason we enjoyed each other, filling in the parts that each didn’t have. He always played the know-all, slightly bullying type, and I used to play the compliant sort of twit. Sometimes he played a father to my son. We did a whole sketch about a father explaining the facts of life, which I think is very funny. The lines that I loved, he’d say [imitating Cook]: ‘I think you should know, Roger, how you came to be brought about. Some years ago, your mother was sitting in a chair –– the very chair you’re sitting in now, as a matter of fact –– and when she vacated the chair, I sat in the chair, which was still warm from her body, and sure enough, four years later, you were born.’ “

In one of their funniest (and more tasteful) sketches, Dudley played a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan, a highly optimistic fellow who sees no reason why he shouldn’t get the part. Cook, as the producer, says to him (this is approximate): “Your right leg I like. I have nothing against your right leg, but then, neither do you, which is the problem. In the leg division, you are deficient. To the tune of one.”

The sketch takes on a certain metaphoric resonance when one learns of Dudley’s early foot troubles and realizes that in a sense –– with whimsical little Dud being hailed as a Hollywood sex symbol –– the one-legged man has, by God, become Tarzan.

5 Getting Better
DUDLEY FRANKLY ADMITS HE IS A HETEROSEXUAL. He’s been married and divorced twice: to Suzy Kendall, the British actress (1966 to 1968) and to Tuesday Weld (1975 to 1980). He has a son, Patrick, who’s seven and lives in New York with Tuesday Weld. Dudley keeps a room set aside for him in the Marina del Rey house, which he and Weld bought about five years ago, after they’d washed ashore in L.A. at the terminus of the U.S. tour of Good Evening. (It was at that point, following a year of sunny torpor, that Dudley decided to take a serious shot at Hollywood.)

In the pre-Anton era, Dudley was a forceful advocate of promiscuity, pioneering the concept he calls “the meaningful one-night stand.” He met the singer-actress three years ago at an obscure awards ceremony; they’ve been virtual roommates since, though in their two separate houses. They accompany each other to work engagements, sometimes as far off as Japan. They seem genuinely affectionate. They have stocked a large repertoire of height jokes with which to respond to the seemingly endless public fascination with their height disparity of approximately eight inches.

Driving to Fox studios for a meeting on his next movie (Unfaithfully Yours, a remake of a 1948 Preston Sturges comedy starring Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell), Dudley is found at the wheel of his white ’63 Bentley, with Susan seated to his left. Brilliantly, if lazily, the Dudleywatcher hits on the device of asking her to interview him about them. As a typical reporter might.

SUSAN: “How do you feel about dating a taller woman?”
DUDLEY: [Adopting American accent] “Oh, it’s great, really great. You know, like Susan and I really, like, confronted this height thing with a degree of maturity unknown on the western seaboard….”
SUSAN: [Cutting him off] “Aha. Well, that’s all I wanted to ask you. Basically, you’re a pretty boring guy.”
DUDLEY: [Still orating] “…that is the linchpin on which everything else….”
SUSAN: “What is it you like best about me [laughs wickedly]?”
DUDLEY: “That’s a tough one, Susan.”
SUSAN: “I know – there’s so much to choose from!”
DUDLEY: [Serious now] “Well, I was saying before, I love your passion….”
SUSAN: “Ahh, that’s sweet.”
DUDLEY: “Your enthusiasm and your sense of humor.”
SUSAN: “And I do make good coffee in the morning, right?”
DUDLEY: “Good coffee. You haven’t read much Proust, but then….”
REPORTER: “But then, who has?”
SUSAN: “Let me ask you, Dudley. What do you find most attractive about yourself?”
DUDLEY: [Lapsing back into American accent] “Well, my whole karma, man.”
SUSAN: “I’m serious.”
DUDLEY: “What do I…? This is an unanswerable question. In the sense that I’m too embarrassed.”
SUSAN: “I can answer it.”
DUDLEY: [Reluctantly] “I find my desire to be loved the most attractive part of myself.”
SUSAN: “I have to agree with that. It’s very frustrating and not altogether what I like best about him, because everybody does, in turn, love him. Men, women, everybody. But I think that is because he’s so tangible. He really is very … touchable, aren’t you, dear?”

Another car veers dangerously close to Dudley’s. He verbalizes unrepressed anger.

REPORTER: “Right there, someone wants to touch you.”
SUSAN: “And if they can’t touch him, they just kind of run the car into him.”
DUDLEY: [Mock angry] “Well, this bitch is trying to pretend that nobody wants to touch her!”
SUSAN: “Oh, but I’ve realized it.”
DUDLEY: [Sneering] “Yeahhh. Realized it. For the last month.”
SUSAN: “No, it’s funny, but the best thing Dudley’s introduced me to in my life is….”
DUDLEY: “Promiscuity.”
SUSAN: “Not promiscuity so much, but the fact that promiscuity is not a dirty word. That it doesn’t make you bad or evil.”
DUDLEY: “There are no dirty words. Except not enough salt.”
SUSAN: “You use a few. I haven’t had enough chocolate today’ – that’s Dudley. There’s no chocolate in the house and he wants it, that’s trouble. Let’s see. We were talking about interviewing the other day….I was talking to you about it, wasn’t I?”
DUDLEY: “Either me or Burt Reynolds, I don’t know.”
SUSAN: “Oh, was it Burt? No, it was you. Because we all have a lot of pain in our lives; I know where a lot of your pain comes from. But what do you feel is the biggest source of pain in your life? Not something in the past, but like a continual well you go to that’s painful.”
REPORTER: “Interviews.”
SUSAN: “He loves interviews.”
DUDLEY: “Uhh, well, you see this is the old philosophical paradox. You can say you’re not always doing what you want to do, but actually you are every moment. That is a great source of pain to me. The fear of doing what I want to do and the potential of being rejected and abandoned. That’s life.”
SUSAN: “How do you feel about smog?”
DUDLEY: “I feel smog abandons me from time to time, and I feel very upset about that.”

6 Happiness Regained
IT IS THE PRESENT, MORE OR LESS. THE SIX Weeks debacle fades. Dudley recovers.
Not much time to mope about it. Inadvertently, Dudley got himself into a manic spate of moviemaking, grinding out four in a row. Filmed and ready for fall release is Romantic Comedy (based on Bernard Slade’s Broadway play), which costars Mary Steenburgen. Now shooting is Unfaithfully Yours. In it, Dudley plays, appropriately, an orchestra conductor who suspects his innocent wife (Nastassia Kinski) of cheating on him and plots her murder. “She’s turned out to be delightful,” he says of Kinski. “She’s probably too self-critical for her own good. I don’t think she realizes how her native nervousness is very interesting to watch on film.”

As Unfaithfully Yours was filming, Lovesick opened. In this one, Dudley plays, appropriately, a shrink who obsesses over a patient (Elizabeth McGovern) and unravels. Reading the reviews for Lovesick has been much less painful than the last time around. No Arthurian raves, but no kicks in the groin, either. The Times notice began: “Forget Six Weeks. Dudley Moore, incomparable in “10” and Arthur, is back doing what he does best….” Whew.

After Unfaithfully wraps, Dudley will take a little vacation from movies. Oh, maybe six months or so. He’ll write some music, do some concerts, rest.

It should be fun. If only he could keep that damnable phrase from popping up so much, things would really be swell. It even infests his own speech!

It happened, for instance, right in the midst of interviewing for this story, when he was asked, innocently, how much work was left on Unfaithfully Yours. He said:

“We’ve got another, um, six, ha ha, excuse me, another six weeks! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh God, the term ‘six weeks’ keeps turning up all over the place! Every time I hear somebody say, ‘Well, it took about six weeks,’ my mind goes out of gear.”

But aside from that, Dudley’s fine. Back on the happiness track. The producers still say, “Get me Dudley Moore.” The orchestras applaud. Just –– if you see him –– don’t mention those two words.

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