As a production assistant for TV shows like Entertainment Tonight , Hard Copy and Access Hollywood , Albert Carvajal would occasionally interrupt celebrity interviews with questions of his own. Once after a female producer returned to New York from a long assignment, he innocently pointed out that she’d gained weight. During one tense shoot at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Albert went missing. A member of the crew found him in a van on a cell phone, describing the events of the day to his mother.
“He was blissfully unaware,” said Access Hollywood cameraman Darryl Henry.
On the day of my sister’s wedding, Albert paged me five times. When I finally replied, he told me that he wanted to talk about Buzz Tyler, a relatively obscure professional wrestler best remembered for holding the now-defunct National Wrestling Alliance Central States title.
I had met Albert when I was working as a freelance producer for Hard Copy . I noticed that he was almost a scholar about a number of subjects, including the Kennedy assassination, the history of the American Mafia and Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. He had an encyclopedic memory of professional-wrestling story lines and once broke down in tears on a TV shoot in front of his hero, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
I never knew about Albert’s passion for dominoes, but it was powerful enough to motivate him to direct ¡Capicu!, a 30-minute film correlating the ardor of the game to romance. When the movie was accepted into the Havana International Film Festival last year, everyone who’d ever worked with Albert was euphoric. Access Hollywood correspondent Billy Bush-the President’s cousin-bought the gangly Bronx boy a Hugo Boss suit. The show’s bureau chief, Christine Fahey, purchased a new pair of shoes for her aggravating but endearing P.A.
A beaming Albert arrived in Cuba on Dec. 7. That night, he went out with some shifty friends he’d made. The situation had all the hallmarks of another Albert story: Albert goes out in a Third World country in an expensive designer suit with $700 American in his pocket and gets mugged. Except this time, Albert Carvajal-a 33-year-old husband and father of two small children-died.
Albert’s parents moved to the South Bronx from the Dominican Republic when he was three months old. He seems to have grown up without a hint of self-consciousness: At family parties, he flapped his arms and wiggled his legs in a dance routine his relatives characterized as “Albertito style.”
“He always thought he was going to be famous,” said his brother, Rudy, 29. “When we were kids, he convinced my mother to pay $5,000 to put his picture in a modeling book.”
“Somewhere in his soul, he had to be around celebrity,” said cameraman Mario Porporino.
The gunplay of his neighborhood barely fazed Albert as he rambled from block to block, smiling at everything.
“People didn’t bother me,” Rudy said, “because someone in somebody’s family always knew Albert.”
Young Albert was almost oblivious to danger, and he was just as daring when he began doing odd jobs for a number of TV shows in the late 90′s. “We had a shoot out on Long Island for Hard Copy , and Albert offered to drive the van,” said Mr. Porporino. “When we got on the highway, he barreled through these cones into a lane that was closed to traffic.”
“Albert, how long have you been driving?” the cameraman asked.
“Oh, I just got my license yesterday.”
Television jargon escaped Albert. When a cameraman once asked for another “brick” (i.e., battery), Albert returned with a brick. “I still call gaffer’s tape ‘gaff’ because that’s what Albert called it,” said audio technician Gary McCafferty.
Every time I heard Albert’s name, there was another tale. The celebrity he was supposed to mind got into a limo and left-while Albert passively observed. The light stand he was dismantling crashed through a table. One time, audio technician Gus Roccaforte and Albert entered an office building and were instructed to load their equipment onto the service elevator. When Mr. Roccaforte arrived upstairs, he saw Albert leisurely strolling past a conference room.
“Albert, where’s the equipment?” Mr. Roccaforte asked.
“It’s still on the elevator.”
Mr. Roccaforte was incredulous. “He just loaded $100,000 worth of equipment on the elevator and walked away,” he said. “I was telling him that you had to take the equipment with you, when suddenly the elevator door opened and all the equipment was there. I don’t know how that happened. It was like he had an angel on his shoulder.”
In a sense, he did. No one could ever truly get mad at Albert. “He was a lovable, goofy, joyous fellow,” Ms. Fahey said.
“I learned pretty fast that teaching Albert to do anything technical was a losing proposition,” said Mr. Porporino. “But even when he made mistakes, it took the seriousness out of the situation. I was afraid that if I got him fired, he’d feel like he failed at something. And I couldn’t do that to him.”
So Albert just kept on being Albert.
“I’ll never forget our talks in the bathroom,” said Mr. Bush. “Only Albert would want to talk while we were going to the bathroom. I’d say, ‘Albert, please, not now.’”
Even the interview subjects seemed to realize that Albert meant no harm.
“We were on a shoot for Entertainment Tonight with Jackie Chan,” said Mr. Roccaforte. “Albert was really into Jackie Chan; he was loving life. The reporter was doing the interview when, all of the sudden, I heard Albert fire a question from across the room. Jackie looked away from the reporter and answered it. Then Albert asked a follow-up question!”
At Access Hollywood , Albert regularly regaled the New York office with song. “We’d tell him, ‘Albert, you’re terrible,’” said Mr. Bush. “And he’d say, ‘No, Papi, I’m good.’”
When cantankerous American Idol judge Simon Cowell was interviewed at the bureau, Albert suddenly stepped in front of the camera, offering his rendition of Céline Dion’s “Love Theme from Titanic .”
Mr. Cowell was uncharacteristically polite. “You know what, Albert?” he commented, looking at his watch. “I don’t mean to be rude, but we really have to go.”
“I don’t think that Simon understands that I have talent,” Albert told Mr. Bush.
Albert may have been the one taking orders downtown, but at home “he was the light of our family,” said cousin Johanna Abreu, 20. “He’d ask us to scratch his back, bring him blankets, go down to the store for him. We did everything except feed him.”
In recent years, Albert had worked almost exclusively for Access Hollywood , running errands and delivering tapes, among other chores. “He knew messengers,” Ms. Fahey said. “He knew lawyers. He knew security guards. He knew people from the movie studios. He cut through social lines, racial lines. Everybody stopped to talk to Albert.”
That wasn’t always a good thing. “Albert would have to deliver a tape from a publicist for a day of air,” Mr. Henry said. “He’d disappear; no one would know where he was. I’d go downstairs and I’d see him giving a doctoral dissertation to a delivery boy.”
“Albert looked at everybody as a possible contact,” Rudy said. “He told me about being in the elevator at Rockefeller Center and smiling at someone who looked important. They began talking, and the guy said, ‘Maybe we can exchange numbers.’ Albert said, ‘That would be good.’ When the elevator doors opened, the guy was trying to kiss him.”
Eventually Albert crossed paths with a group of Latinos with similar goals, including Lise Ramos. Together they wrote, directed and produced ¡Capicu! -named for a winning move in dominoes-in Washington Square Park.
“He had a very specific vision of, say, how a certain domino shot should look,” said the film’s associate producer, Lorraine Rodriguez. “There were times when you actually saw him very serious.”
As in life, Albert refused to adhere to convention on the set. “He didn’t force you to stay on-script,” said actress Elena Adames. “He allowed you to explore your character, which was very cool.”
Now Albert had a new network of friends, and they began shopping the film around. They entered ¡Capicu! in the Latin U.S.A. Film Festival in November, where it won first prize for best short film. “He couldn’t shut up when he made his acceptance speech,” said Roberto Monticello, a director who attended the event. “He was practically jumping from the stage.”
Mr. Monticello was among those who encouraged Albert to attend the Havana International Film Festival. On the Delta charter to Cuba, Albert walked the aisles handing out business cards for his new South Bronx Films company. The crew was so amused that they let him show ¡Capicu! on the flight.
“When he got down to Havana, he was floating,” Mr. Monticello said. “He couldn’t wait to go out and see everything.”
But some of his companions were concerned about Albert’s childlike trust of strangers, particularly a group that had allegedly been overcharging attendees on rides from the airport.
“One woman seemed very vulgar and was drinking aguardiente ,” said Ms. Adames. “One of the guys wouldn’t look me in the eye. I said, ‘Albert, be careful. These people seem like moochers.’ But Albert said, ‘No, they’re cool.’”
When Ms. Adames left Albert at the Hotel Nacional on Sunday, Dec. 7, he told her that he was going to a party with his new friends. After he failed to rendezvous with her the next morning, she sought out a festival director, who told her that Albert had been found unconscious on a bustling street near the hotel. His sneakers, pager, leather jacket and wallet-including the $700 he was carrying-were missing. His companions from the previous night insisted to Ms. Adames that they’d never gone out with Albert at all.
At Calixto Garcia Hospital, a confused Albert told a different story.
“He said he was out partying with these people,” Ms. Adames said. “They left the first party and were going to another party, and four to five strangers did something to him, and he passed out.”
“He wasn’t really clear on what happened,” Mr. Monticello said. “He said he might have been mugged, but those were dreams.”
Albert had few bruises, save for a series of scrapes that apparently occurred when he fell to his knees. “He had no wounds from the waist up,” Mr. Monticello said. “No one gets mugged by getting hit in the legs. It made me wonder whether he was drugged and robbed.”
Still, no one doubted that he’d make a full recovery.
“He was sitting in bed asking, ‘Am I going to get distribution in Havana?’” Mr. Monticello said. “He didn’t understand that this doesn’t happen in Cuba.”
But Albert seemed to decline further each day. “The doctors said he had blood in his urine,” Ms. Adames said. “They gave him X-rays, a C.A.T. scan, a sonogram, and they couldn’t find anything.”
By Dec. 11, his kidneys were failing. “He was groggy,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “He said he couldn’t feel his legs. He kept telling me to put my hand on the arch behind his neck and on his back, where his kidneys were. He said he was in a lot of pain in those places.”
Albert’s friends inquired about having him flown to a hospital in the United States. Someone got in touch with Access Hollywood , and Billy Bush started making calls to his influential relatives. On Thursday night, Albert fell into a coma. Early Saturday morning, Dec. 13, he died.
“No one really understands why this happened,” Mr. Monticello said. “Did he have an allergic reaction to something that somebody gave him? It’s a mystery I guess we’ll never solve.”
For Ms. Rodriguez, the flight back to New York was eerie. “We’d reserved six seats, and Albert’s seat was empty,” she said. “A lot of the other passengers were on board on the way down, when Albert was showing his film. Now he wasn’t alive anymore.”
After his death, Access Hollywood and USA Today did stories about him. NBC picked up the tab for his wake and funeral at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on the Upper East Side, where one of Albert’s idols, Celia Cruz, also had her viewing. Women in puffy furs and designer handbags intermingled with Dominicans from the Bronx, everyone stunned and misty-eyed. Albert’s mother, Olga, wept out loud. His wife, Candida, held their sleeping son, Albert Jr., 4, her face frozen in disbelief. Albert’s daughter, Lisa Marie, 2, rushed toward family friends and hugged them, her laughter as chaste as her late father’s.
“He was naïve and innocent and sweet,” said Ms. Fahey. “A lot of things the rest of us are not.”
-Keith Elliot Greenberg
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