"To be, or not to be..."
Of all of Life's questions, that's one of 'em. Interesting how so many two-leggeds are focused on 'doing' things in life, as if goals and degrees matter a hill of beans. We are human 'beings', not human 'doings'.
And, yes, Life is a stage, and there is no dress rehearsal. It's the real deal, even for those that wish to bury their head in the sand and deny it. Good ol' Willie Shakespeare was wiser than most of us have any idea. Far wiser.
Can't say for sure when the 'acting' bug hit me, though opportunities began exploding in the early 90s. However, I'd always been one to be on stage (literally and figuratively), doing something in a 'Ta-daaah!' manner, with my earliest recollection going back to Kindergarten.
Memories are scant going back that far, but I do remember the Christmas program my Kindergarten class put on for the rest of the elementary school. Well, I don't even remember the program, except for my 'shining' part: I was Rudolph. Complete with a brown turtleneck and jeans, cowboy boots, a red ball somehow pasted to my nose, and a barrette-style antler rack, I was the bomb.
The closing number was everyone on stage singing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer", with "Reindeer Bob" galloping like a horse in an oval in the middle of the stage. At some point, somehow, some way, my beloved cowboy boots betrayed me as I slipped and went crashing to the floor on a turn. Big-time. I do remember my nose coming off and rolling off the front of the stage, and the raucous laughter coming from pretty much everywhere, but that's it. I have a propensity to make a splash of one sort or another whenever I do something new. Welcome to my world.
Insofar as theater work, I never did much of it. The time constraints are sizable, as most nights need to be free, as well as weekends for performances. Great training ground, granted, but it doesn't pay bills, not in community theater. My stage 'curtain call' was in the 90s when I ended with my signature performance as Harold Hill in "The Music Man", a thorough joy to perform. I can still run through most of that most famous of patter songs 'Ya Got Trouble', which in the script was 4 pages long.
It was no immediate step for me into the commercial and movie world. And it began in an unusual way, via a 1957 Cadillac Fleetwood. To get to that point, I have to back the bus up to a time where I needed to get reliable transportation for $2,500...so I naturally went with a sensible choice of a 1957 Chevy Model 210 4-door post...a basic family car that was a brilliant turquoise and white. Dateline: the end of the 1980s. Made as much sense as a snail investing in air brakes, it did.
But it was a wonderful daily driver, that classic beauty. It had its original in-line 6 cylinder engine, completed with the 2-speed Powerglide transmission...hummed right along with nary an issue. It accompanied me when I returned to Woodberry Forest for my second teaching stint there, making that gorgeous countryside all the more fun to drive. In so doing I would occasionally pass by a house that had this Caddy needing attention in its front yard, for sale. The car, not the yard. My curiosity got the best of me, so I sold the Chevy to get "The Beast".
If you want to know the story behind that moniker, read Chapter (TBA). Thanks to that metal monster, I ended up teaching myself how to restore a classic car, and returned it to it's gleaming white and chrome beauty, all 21 feet of it. Easier said than done, of course, and took the better part of a year to do it...but typical of how I do most things, I taught myself how to do the work that needed to be done.
It was in the spring of 1990 when a radio spot called for Kennedy-era cars for an upcoming Orion Pictures movie "Love Field" with Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert (as I write this he's the spokesperson in the Allstate commercials). After I sent pics of my '57 Caddy, I got a phone call to bring the car to Richmond for a look-over, and was asked to come in for a 'go-see' audition to be a background actor, assuming I looked the part of a 1963 vintage male.
Knowing my Howdy-Doody look would fit in with no hair trimming needed, I showed up that Saturday and, well, I was hooked. I was immediately cast as a Secret Service agent, and though nothing more than a background extra, it was thrilling. Heretofore I had not dabbled in any film, and this felt like the big leagues...even if Orion shelved the movie for 2 years due to bankruptcy concerns, before finally releasing the film in a low-key fashion December 1992.
My scenes took place in a little used area at the Richmond, VA airport, staged to stand in for Kennedy's arrival at Dallas' Love Field that day of the fateful limousine ride. In fact, my Caddy was simply parked in the background, and earned three times as much as I did each day of work. While being on set was the most exciting, the endless hours of sitting in the hot extras holding tent waiting to be called in got real boring real fast. As an actor later told me, he 'acts' for free...he considers his pay to be for all the tedium of waiting and remaining in your hotel room 'on hold' to be called in. There is only pocket money to be made as an extra, but the experience is necessary as one earns their 'wings'.
The motherlode came in unexpectedly one day. A Red Cross helicopter was landing at another nearby hangar, and made an approach over the set that was a bit too close and loud for comfort. By close I mean close enough to stir up grit, pebbles, and small rocks, which proceeded to sandblast the classic cars. Oh yeah. Mine was not that valuable of a car, certainly compared to the all-original '63 Corvette split-window coupe next to me. A rock went through his passenger vent window, and the owner was none too pleased. My original windshield got lightly pitted, and since I did my own paint I knew I could give a quick recoat and be fine. I didn't give it much of a second thought.
It was a couple of weeks later back at Woodberry, after my scenes were completed, that a letter from the movie's insurance company apologized for the man-made windstorm and asked me to list all damages and replacement costs. For the classic cars, NOS or 'new old stock' doesn't come cheaply, so I listed my sandblasted concerns and got a paint estimate from a local shop. No sooner could you say "We want to avoid lawsuits!" did a nice, big check come in the mail to cover my list, with nary a quibble. That car earned significantly more than I did for my 'first time' in the movies.
It was about the same time the following year that the same person in charge of lining up classic cars was hired for yet another Kennedy-era film coming into town, this time ABC's "A Woman Named Jackie." The extras-casting agent was also the same as the year before, so I was immediately asked to be Secret Service again...only this time I had some nice 'visible' scenes, one with Roma Downey (Jackie) and John-John as we were either walking to or leaving school. I do remember during a break asking Ms. Downey how she liked her time in Richmond, to which she replied something to the effect of the 'damned heat and humidity' was intolerable. She was spot-on.
By now I was really enjoying the movie thing. For a screen actor, the holy grail is to be eligible for (and then be able to pay for) your SAG card (Screen Actors Guild). If you are credited for saying one word on-camera, you become eligible...little did I know that in that scene I just described, someone later dubbed their voice in as me when I was off-camera, so I stayed officially in the 'featured extras' column. C'est la guerre. Still, it was a blast that summer.
It was during my summer scenes on set I saw an ad for actors to come audition at a local talent agency on Sunday afternoon, which fit in perfectly after a morning scene shot that day. I knew that in acting, to get anywhere, you have to have an agent of sorts, and here was the perfectly timed opportunity. When I met Liz and Billy at Uptown Talent in Richmond, the communally respectful bond was instantaneous. Not only was I cast immediately for a print job the very next morning (THAT never happens), but it started what was a wonderful working relationship in the acting world for the time I was in the area.
Work started to come more regularly, though I had to fit it in with my teaching responsibilities at Woodberry. I learned as I went along, becoming proficient in being a spokesperson, character actor, and all that comes with ads, movies, and training films. My favorite area of work was on movies, hands down, and even though 'rejection' outweighs being chosen for a role by a gazillion to one, you go to auditions with the greatest of hopes and crossed fingers. Too, you hope you don't look like the casting director's "ex"...
"Guarding Tess" (1994, with Nicholas Cage and Shirley MacLaine) was filming in the DC/Baltimore area a few hours north. My initial audition was in DC...what's interesting about such auditions is you spend hours driving back and forth, spend moolah parking in areas like DC, spend potentially an hour waiting for your audition to begin...and you're in and out with the casting director in 3 minutes. It's that insane.
But I got the prized 'call-back' to go to Baltimore a couple of weeks later to read for director Hugh Wilson, which would be the setting for the final cut from a whittled down group. I was up for one of the supporting roles to Cage as a Secret Service comrade (see a common thread here?), and this was basically my audition:
"Yes, ma'am.......yes, ma'am.....yes, ma'am....uh, no, ma'am....yes, ma'am...that's right, ma'am..." I kid you not. Subtle and simple. You as an actor have no idea what they're really looking for, so you do what you should always do, which is be your genuine self.
And I got the role of "Lee Danielson". This was it, the classic 'break' all actors dream about, and I can't begin to exclaim the sense of exultation I felt inside. The only potentially complicating issue was that I had left Woodberry and was teaching at a middle school in Richmond, Virginia...and I was going to have to ask off for at least two months to go stay in Baltimore while we filmed. It was not the easiest thing to do, but the school acquiesced and gave me their good graces.
I remember I was teaching science to my class of 7th grade girls when the phone rang in my office. It was agent Billy, and he didn't sound so good. He told me to sit down. With only 24 hours before the signing of the holy grail itself, the 'deal memo', I was being replaced by their first pick, an actor previously unavailable as he was on a Russian movie set. David Graf is best known as "Tackleberry" in the Police Academy movies, the large gun-loving cadet that didn't take gruff from anyone. Alas, his role wrapped early; he was signed, and I was bumped.
(I have to insert here that as I went to his bio page, I read where he died back in 2001 from a fatal heart attack 8 days before his 51st birthday. Making me swallow hard this morning as I tweak things in this chapter...)
From such a joyous high to such a despairing low I went in a flash. I think taking something like that is all the harder when it slips through your fingers and there is nothing you can do about it. The good news is that the director (Hugh Wilson) still wanted to keep me on the set, as scripts are sometimes adjusted as the project gets underway. I didn't have an immediate role, but was written in as "Schaeffer's Assistant", "Schaeffer" (Jim Rebhorn) being the FBI head that flew in to take over after "Tess" was kidnapped.
I still got my hotel apartment for a month and a half...got to sit around the table for the reading of the script, two chairs down from Shirley MacLaine. I got to be decent friends with the other actors, and if there is one question people always ask it's, "Did you get Nicholas Cage's autograph?". When you're in a position like mine was, you're one of 'them' and you would never ask for an autograph. I'm content enough that I got to sit in an RV with him and one other actor, having a few beers and just talking regular life 'stuff' during downtime on a night shoot in the Pennsylvania countryside.
But I got my SAG card, and after coming up with the $1,200 or whatever the 'initiation fee' was at the time, I was in like Flint (current initiation fees have now risen to ~$2,300). As long as you pay the minimum yearly fee (which is something close to $130) and you abide by union rules, you retain your SAG card, a necessary item to even audition for some projects. As I write this in North Carolina, the amount of union work is rather limited, with strong competition from other hungry actors hundreds of miles away. Not unlike a lottery, getting SAG roles.
I understood long ago I needed to develop income streams from various areas, as relying solely on acting work is an efficient way to starve. Oh, there are waves where you are 'hot' and the coffers fill, but just as quickly, and more often, the tide goes out, and it becomes nigh impossible to develop a budget because you have no way of steadying or relying on any level of income. Lest I forget, to pursue acting is to pursue rejection, which can get to you at low tide, especially. Just comes with the territory.
One really fun 'experience' on the "Tess" set gleaned from a passing comment from Jim Rebhorn as a small group of us were being driven to set. He mentioned that he'd forgotten to go get his per diem the other day and was going to go check on it when we got back. I knew what per diem meant, but I had no idea how it related to a movie set. Come to find out that even with all the provided lodging, transportation, and meals anytime, actors also get a daily spot of good ol' spending cash, then about $40-50/day. When I went to the temporary set offices, the lady said, "We were wondering when you'd come by!" and proceeded to dole out almost $900 in cash that I'd not picked up in weeks.
(insert deer-in-the-headlights-look, here...)
(cue cricket chirps, too...)
It's at times like that you really have to be an actor and keep your composure and game-face on. For many, money is something they're used to; for me, it was nothing short of manna from above. With the hotel being but a few blocks from Baltimore's Inner Harbor and its plethora of specialty stores, I did something I had always wanted to do: I went window shopping with an 'attitude'. While a bit risky to walk with such a wad of cash on me, I figured my somewhat youthful and large 6'-4" frame was good enough protection, and so I went looking.
For once, I had the power to buy just about anything I wanted, something to which I'd not treated myself before. I'd see a nice watch...or a piece of art...or a fossil in a nature store...or a leather coat...it was like shopping for penny candy, really. For those few hours, the world was my oyster store to peruse with confidence.
Only I didn't spend a penny, that day. Not one. The sheer joy was simply knowing that I could, had I chosen to.