"The thing had crapped out, and I was flatter'n a worm'" Mutt Jeffins is saying, his leathery eyes blinking in the grey Jersey sunlight. The "thing" he is referring to is his reality show, "The Adventures of Mutt the Fugitive Chaser," which ran on the Fox Men's Adventure Channel from 2003 to 2006. The sudden cancellation, he says, left him devastated. "Then my wife's a professor, she tells me about all these missing Shakespeare plays and I figure..." Here he makes eye contact, prodding me in the chest with a sausage finger to make his point. "Let's go get 'em."
This explains the rationale behind his new reality series, "Mutt's Shakespeare Hunt." It's been filming for three weeks now, and I've come along to witness a day's shooting in New Jersey.
"We haven't been able to get over to England yet," explains Mutt's agent and the show's producer, Dom Bedooby, a dapper gentleman with a distracting lazy eye. "Not sure we will, it doesn't seem to be necessary. It turns out, maybe Shakespeare was over in New Jersey a lot or he lent his stuff to someone who kept it and came over here. Either way, we're finding a lot of stuff."
So far, he claims, the results have been extraordinary. " Mutt has discovered at least 17 lost Shakespeare plays, a buncha sonnets, and some dirty limericks he wrote when he was drunk. I've had it all looked at by an expert, he said it was all pretty genuine-looking. He also warned me that some pretty big fat-cats in the Shakespeare racket wouldn't like what we were doing, and they might try to discredit us, possibly by substituting a buncha phony-baloney garbage for our genuine artifacts."
He agrees to show me copies of some of their finds only after I agree to look at them with his my hands clasped behind my back. The smudgy photocopies tell a remarkable story, lost works representing a significant new percentage of Shakespeare output; titles such as "Love's Labor's Moist" and 'The Twelfth Gentleman of Bologna" dance in front of my eyes. Then the xeroxes are suddenly snatched away by Bedooby. "Can't have you describing this stuff in print, no way..." he sighs as he stuffs the copies back in their envelope. "Too dangerous."
And besides, it's time to shoot. Today Mutt has received a tip that a small-time informer known as "Loquacious Leonard" might have the info on where a certain lost masterpiece might be found. Mutt and Leonard stand patiently, each staring off into separate space, while the light is tested and the camera prepared. Then, on the cry of "Action!," Mutt grabs the snitch by his lapels and pushes him into some garbage cans. "Wherezat Shakespeare folio at?" he bellows, snortily. "Answer me, you punk!'
After another minute or two of roughhousing, Leonard stammers out an address, in Tenafly, about thirty-five minutes away. "Stay outta trouble," Mutt grumbles, pushing his finger into Leonard's nose. "I'll be keeping an eye on you." Then the assistant director hands the stoolie a check.
We all pile in to the van and set out, arriving at a shabby two-storey house on a seedy residential street. I follow behind the camera crew as Mutt rings the doorbell. The door is opened by a stooped man with thinning hair and a sheepish grin. "Yes?" he queries. Mutt gets right to the point. "I wanna know, if you've got, a missing play by one William Shakespeare, known in his own time as William the Playmaker." He pauses, then, toughening his aspect a little, he growls "C'mon, if you've got it, lemme have it. I'll make sure they go easy on you," It's not at all clear what he meant by that last sentence. but the homeowner doesn't seem to mind at all. "It's in here, you can take it, I was wrong to deny it to posterity," he proclaims as he leads us inside his house and down the hallway.
The manuscript is lying on a table in the dining room beneath a framed poster of Bud Man. On the cover is clearly printed "Love Labors A Lot. Copyright MDCVI by William Shakespeare, Esq." Looking at the first page shows me some tantalizingly Shakespearean language, although troublingly I notice it's written on the back of an Applebees shareholders report. But then the play is snatched away by Mutt. "Looks realer than shit," he announces as he shoves the pages into a briefcase handcuffed to the wrist of a production assistant. Then he walks outside and holds two fingers up to the sky in a contemplative gesture. "This one's for you, Will, " he says softly. And, with that, today's shooting is finished.
"I like to think Will and me had a lot in common," he says before being whisked away for a promotional appearance (he's fighting Santa in a shopping mall, to benefit anti-AIDS awareness). "Like me, he grew up poor, people told him he couldn't amount to nothing. Then he got a job, writing plays. And now I got a job, finding those plays. It's come full circle," he says, and then he is gone.