February 2009

5 QUESTIONS FROM LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE

In the February 2009 issue of Los Angeles Magazine there was a series of questions asked of six film critics. I thought it might be interesting to explore… 


Here are my answers:

1. The first movie I fell in love with
“King Kong” (1933). I used to live in northern New Jersey as a kid and I remember this movie on WOR Channel 9. I loved the “monster” as he ran amok in New York City and finally plunged to his death from the top of the Empire State Building. Even as a child I understood that Kong was a victim and that “Man” had done him wrong (not Fay Wray). Plus this movie has a great curtain line: “Twas beauty that killed the beast.” 

2. The movie I will watch again and again:
“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). It may not be a high-brow choice, but this movie satisfies me on all levels: Bud and Lou were my favorites as a kid, as were all of the classic Universal horror movies. This movie had A&C and Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as the Monster! Wow. The production values were great (especially for a 1948 B-picture from Universal-International), the movie is both hilarious and scary and Frank Skinner’s music score was perfect. I’m eight years old all over again. 

3. The movie star I will see in anything:
Jack Lemmon. No actor made it look easier. Comedy, drama, and especially that range of real-life in between: he was the best. 

4. The movie that stops me in my tracks when I’m channel surfing:
“The Hunt for Red October” (1990). Great movie based on an equally great book. I love Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Sam Neil and especially Sean Connery in this movie. Part of my love of this movie is my own background serving in the intelligence field while in the Army. This Cold War thriller brings back a lot of memories. I always mean to watch a few scenes, then, next thing I know, I’m watching the whole thing! “The Godfather” is a close second, by the way.

5. The movie that made me want to be a critic: 
In my case, replace “critic” with “filmmaker.” For me, it was “Citizen Kane” (1941). I first saw it in college on the big screen. I was entranced. From the camera angles, to the dialogue and non-linear narrative structure, I was acutely aware that there was the hand of a great master at work. And Orson Welles was a man of great things: great talent, great appetites, great vision, great ego, great failings and great successes. The passion and drive that permeates “Citizen Kane” inspires me and fills me with my own personal great expectations that I may yet achieve.

So that’s how I answered these questions. What are your answers?

SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS

One of the eternal truths about Hollywood is that there’s a new bus arriving daily, bringing more acting hopefuls and more competition. There is an industry that lives off of the fresh faces and dreams of these hopefuls. It’s the “Let’s get you into show business” business. Some are more blatant cons than others. Some are legit in that they do provide what they say they will provide. It just gets you nowhere near the real business. You spin on the wheel until you decide to jump off. 


It was not any different for me. I had my headshot (8×10) taken and duplicated, ready to announce my presence on the Hollywood acting scene, and mailed hundreds out to all of the LA agents. I did student films for aspiring filmmakers at USC and LMU, I auditioned for theater groups and plays and went to “seminars” in which one paid to meet casting directors and read a scene for them, hoping against hope that they would call you in to read for a real professional job. In fairness, I did land my first auditions through these “seminars.” 

By preserving, meeting people and getting some work, I was able to join both acting unions: AFTRA and SAG. From there, it was much easier to land my first real agent, the one who got my career started with jobs like “Beverly Hills 90210,” “All That,” a “Cracker Jack” national commercial and  scene with Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter in the film “Live From Baghdad.” 

But before that, I was scurrying about in the shady world of “entrepreneurial”  Hollywood agents and businesses. One agent signed me, but wanted me to go to their “highly recommended” photographer who would give me a special deal. Later I realized this special deal included a kick-back to the “agent.” The next agent signed me and conveniently ran his own on-camera acting workshop. No kick-back there–I paid the agent directly! 

But my favorite detour on my professional acting career was signing on with APS, the Actors Promotional Service. Still in business, this is one of those businesses that does what it says it will, but keeps you on the gerbil wheel. For a monthly fee they would send out my headshot and resume to casting directors every week. I was mailed a report as to where they all went. They held motivational meetings and planned special Industry Networking Events. I signed up for one which was held in an upscale gated community near Pacific Palisades. 

The other shoe dropped when it was revealed that each actor attending (and having already paid a fee to defer expenses) had to sign up for a shift working the event! Yes, we were to serve the “industry guests” while schmoozing them! Now, what are the chances an industry executive will “discover” the bartender of waitress? I was stunned. Curious to see just how this train-wreck really played out, I signed up as part of the clean-up crew. This allowed me to mingle during the entire Sunday afternoon event and take it all in. I love people-watching and this was both hilarious and very sad. 

I cleaned up the garbage with a wry smile, shaking my head at both what I had observed and the fact that I had to pay for this privilege. 

I’m just saying…

INSECURITY REIGNS


I came to LA to find work in the motion picture industry. My first job provided me just that: a job at Universal Studios! Home to Hollywood history dating back to 1915, this was the home of Abbott & Costello, Flash Gordon and the Frankenstein Monster. Steven Spielberg first bluffed his way into the industry by sneaking onto this lot and setting up shop in a vacant office! After that, of course, no bluffing was needed–he was the real deal.


I proudly drove my shiny silver 1979 Mazda hatchback through the Main Gate every evening. I parked near the Jack Webb Building, just down from the famous Black Tower of the legendary Lew Wasserman. I entered what had previously been a film vault and now housed the Lower Lot Security Department. Yup, I had made onto the Universal lot as a security officer. I was now “in security.” Each
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night from 11pm to 7am I had the run of the place, patrolling the famous back lot. When it was quiet, I’d sit on the steps of the “Back to Future” courthouse eating my lunch, knowing these were the same steps Gregory Peck climbed as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I also got to patrol all of the sound stages prepped for filming sitcoms, films and commercials. My favorite was Stage 28, the Haunted Sound Stage.


Stage 28 dates to the 1920s and houses (to this day) part of the opera house set from both the 1925 and 1943 versions of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Whenever a show films inside, they drape the three-story opera set with black cloth. Why is it still there? Because, legend has it, that every attempt to dismantle it has met with someone being seriously injured. Noises are heard in the rafters, suddenly lights turn on and off, and one person claimed to me that they were tripped on the steps by an invisible hand grasping their ankle. How cool!

My love affair with this job ended in 1992 when, around 2am one morning, tanks containing chlorine for the Miami Vice stunt show on the Upper Lot began leaking. Poisonous chlorine gas low-crawled down the hill, settling into the basin of the Lower Lot sound stages. The security watch commander ordered the lot be closed until Hazmat could respond. Several security officers were issued painters masks to protect them from the fumes (it did not) and I was given a respirator with oxygen tank, which would have been fine if the tank contained any oxygen inside (it did not). I knew I was in deep trouble when Channel 7 News decided it was too risky to report from my location and promptly made a U-turn. By 4:30am the emergency was under control and the lot opened for the day. Myself and three others were showing signs of respiratory distress: burning lungs, shortness of breath, and light headedness. A van was summoned to transport us to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. We waited and waited. Finally the watch commander somberly told us that the “Colombo” people had shown up and needed the van for this morning’s shoot. We would have to drive ourselves. I shouted back as we exited the tiny office, “If I die, they better dedicate the episode to me!”

After that, things were never the same. But that’s okay; it was time for me to move on. After all, I was here LA to work as an actor, not a security officer. So I quit with the satisfaction that righteousness was on my side. Onward and upward, my heart sang out!

But times were tougher than I thought. My wife and two sons had now joined me in LA and I had to stay employed. No one wanted to hire me except for a small security company in Santa Monica whose office personnel sat placidly behind bulletproof glass. They issued me a single uniform and sent me to guard a bank parking lot in South Central LA eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. It was the scariest $5.25 an hour I ever earned!

I’m just saying…

FADE IN:

Where to begin with a blog? Well, naturally, I should begin at the beginning. Not to worry, I have no intention of recounting my childhood (which was fine) or my stint in the US Army (which was enlightening) or my years in college (which were… boy, I can’t remember!). Nope, I’d like to start with my first step toward a professional career in acting: moving to Los Angeles.

Some things never change. I was just another in a long line of other aspiring actors who arrived in this sprawling metropolis, eyes wide and jaw agape. First off, Los Angeles is a sea of concrete: freeways, buildings and sidewalks. Coming from the lush rolling hills of Pennsylvania, I was stunned by the sheer breadth of the city. Strange how quickly I would come to love it.

I drove out to LA in 1990 with an old friend named Steve who was in between jobs and game for an adventure. I had $600, no car and no job. Fortunately, I had another friend who had an apartment in Torrance, in the South Bay area of LA. Unfortunately his new girlfriend had just moved in and my time in Torrance would be, of necessity, short. I had to find work and a new place to live. To do both I had to find a car!

Try to buy a car with no job, no permanent address and not enough money. (Get used to overcoming seemingly impossible odds if you want to move to LA and work as an actor!) After a few days of test driving cheap cars (my favorite was the Ford with the rear view mirror that fell off after I closed the door), I ended up driving a brown sedan when I noticed a curious thing: the odometer reading was several thousand miles less than the odometer figure noted on the paperwork I found in the trunk. It had been rolled back. I couldn’t afford this car anyway but I decided to try to trade my newly discovered information of illegal

activity for a substantial discount. The car dealer quickly made a phone call and said he had a different car for me at next to nothing. He sent me down the street to another car lot where I was told to ask for Snubby.

Snubby showed me the silver 1979 Mazda and told me it was mine. It was so inexpensive that Steve was able (and graciously willing) to put the purchase on his credit card until I could find a job. However, this particular car lot couldn’t process credit cards. Then Snubby had an idea. He took us to a nearby Pet Store who could process the card. My pal walked out of there with a receipt for pet supplies he never bought while I got the title to a car. How Snubby and his boss got reimbursed was lost on me.

So my first LA car (and LA is very car-centric) was sold to me by a man named Snubby, purchased at a Pet Store with a paint job so fresh that I was cautioned not to wash it for a few days…

I was beginning to like this Hollywood adventure until the transmission dropped out three months later. The repair bill was as much as the car!

I’m just saying…