“It was quite early in the morning when I had to drive a sample of my sperm across Coldwater Canyon in my convertible Mustang.
My only concern was that if I was to get into an accident, how would I explain the fact that I had semen all over the upholstery to the investigating officer? It was pre-rush hour so I could drive at a reasonable pace, but Mustangs are quite heavy and some of the roads in the Hollywood hills are extremely winding and hilly, so the vial on the passenger seat almost had to be strapped in with a seatbelt – not because of the volume though, that would be shameless bragging.
This was in the mid-1990s and my then-wife Margaret and I were in the midst of trying to get pregnant through various fertility treatments after a couple of miscarriages, and I was on my way to play my part in that whole process. I realise that miscarriages and cars don’t usually feature in the same article, but it’s all part of the story that leads up to why the Mustang got away.
Mine was a pretty traditional-looking black Ford Mustang and I loved it because driving around in LA in a classic American convertible was a childhood dream – you just pressed a button and then bang, the whole thing automatically opened up, which I thought was so cool. Although, to be honest, there weren’t that many times when the temperature was just right to drive with the top down, even though it was California. I could never go for meetings or auditions in it because I’d be a sweating, red-faced mess by the time I arrived, or I’d be completely disheveled and frozen. But it was great for going shopping and doing this and that.
Even though the Mustang is kind of a symbol of independence and being footloose and fancy-free, Margaret and I really wanted to start a family – but it just wasn’t happening. The miscarriages had been devastating and hard to process, because we were grieving the loss of a dream rather than a person. And then, finally, all the various different fertility and in vitro treatments didn’t end up working either.
I’d always envisaged having a biological child of my own. It was a really visceral, physiological thing that I remember feeling in my gut, so to let go of that idea was a really interesting turning point for me psychologically. But I realised those feelings were mostly all about ego, they were about me and not the potential child. So we met up with an adoption lawyer, put together a package with our photos and a personal biography and waited for months, and months, and months. We sort of gave up, we thought maybe it’s because we were too old (I was in my late 30s and Margaret was in her early 40s), but one Monday morning, the phone rang.
It was early, about 7 o’clock, so I was in that half-asleep, half-awake state and kind of annoyed when I answered it. But it was our adoption lawyer. He said we needed to get to a hospital in Santa Barbara right away because a young woman, who had hidden her pregnancy from her family, had just given birth to a baby girl and couldn’t raise the child herself and had chosen us as the baby’s adoptive parents. So we just got in the Mustang and drove as fast as we legally could.
I’ve performed in front of thousands of people in theatres and spoken in front of 20,000 people at a football ground, but I’ve never experienced an adrenaline rush like that – it was extraordinary. As we were heading down the freeway, Margaret flicked through one of those “How to Raise a Baby” books and we went through our shortlist of names and quickly settled on Alexandra. We then discussed a middle name and I suddenly blurted out “Jane!”, which hadn’t been on any of our lists. But Margaret and I agreed that “Alexandra Jane” sounded good, so that was settled.
Arriving in the hospital room was a collision of extremely heightened emotions because the birth mother was seeing the baby for the first time, at the very same time as us, and within moments everybody was laughing, gabbling, chattering and crying. It all immediately felt right, so we said yes… we would love to be her parents.
It was when we went off to do the paperwork that we found out that the temporary name the baby had been given by her birth mother — something that by California law has to be done immediately after the birth — was Jane, after her own middle name – which was completely bizarre. I then put my new baby, Alexandra Jane, on my Mastercard, which might sound even more bizarre, but in America you pay the birth mother’s medical bills as part of the adoption process. I got loads of air miles, but at least I had the decency not to ask if she was tax deductible.
After saying goodbye to the birth mother, the nurse brought Alexandra to the nursery. She lay in a bundle in my arms and normally newborn babies don’t really open their eyes but she did, and looked straight at me. I heard a voice saying ‘This is your daughter’ and, to this day, I don’t know if it was the nurse’s voice or a voice in my head… but it was the moment when I knew I finally had the child I’d so desperately wanted. And it was the most important moment of my life.
We had absolutely nothing to look after a baby with, so we went to a Walmart next to the hospital and bought a baby seat and a little Minnie Mouse onesie. On the way home, phone calls were made to everybody we knew to see what we could borrow, and I spent that first night wide awake watching Alexandra like a hawk to make sure she was still breathing.
The next day, when I looked out the window and saw the Mustang sitting on the driveway, I realised it wasn’t the best or safest car for a baby. I’d had it for a few years and traded it in, somewhat reluctantly, for a sensible SUV, and became a sensible man, all within a single day. As Billy Connolly would say, I’d had my “windswept and interesting” period, and although it was the end of an era, I was at a point in my life where I was sick of living for me; I was happy to spend time worrying and obsessing about somebody else.
In the Ford Mustang, it had been me with my chosen plus one by my side, but my white Jeep Grand Cherokee that I traded it in for was more grounded. It was my first “dad car” and, to be fair, I liked it. I don’t want to read too much symbolism into it all, but going from a black vehicle to a bright white one was like coming out of the darkness into the light.
Since then, as Ally has got older, I’ve occasionally thought about buying a new Mustang but variety is the spice of life and I’ve leased lots of different cars over the years. I’m sure my old Mustang is still around somewhere but I’d have to dig through mounds of paperwork to see if I still have the documentation – in America every time a car is sold it keeps the same vehicle identification number, but it gets a new licence plate.
I don’t look back very much because I don’t want to live in the past but, as I was writing my book, which was originally just going to be a bunch of funny stories from 44 years in showbiz, what emerged was my eternal search for family. It gets a bit philosophical towards the end, but one of the conclusions I draw is that our lives are a series of choices and those choices define who you are and what your destiny is.
I feel a bit of a fraud, in terms of the premise of this article, because although the Mustang is the one that got away, I was quite willing to let it go; it was a bittersweet parting, put it that way. I made my choice to get rid of it for a reason and that reason is my daughter, who has just turned 28 incidentally and is fabulous in every single way.”
All of Jim’s royalties from his book ‘CAUGHT WITH MY PANTS DOWN and Other Tales from a Life in Hollywood’ will be donated to BAFTA’s Access for All program in the US, the Palace for Life foundation in the UK, and a charity to aid Ukrainian refugees. You can buy your copy here.
The One That Got Away: Ant Anstead’s hunt for Bridget the MG Midget
The One That Got Away: John Illsley of Dire Straits and the Aston DB5 bought with his first royalty cheques
The One That Got Away: Marc Allum’s 1960 Cadillac Sedan de Ville