June 2012

YOU’RE NOT FROM AROUND HERE, ARE YOU?

I was born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania: anthracite country, with a coal mining heritage and a culture and language all its own. Now although I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over twenty years, I still catch myself using colloquialisms from my childhood and youth. Some of these, I’m sure, are not confined to where I grew up and you may even recognize a few from your life. But I decided to sit down and think about the words and phrases I grew up with that hold a particular meaning for me.
For example, my mother would always “straighten up the house” before company arrived. I was told to “red up my room” so that it was clean. In order not to waste electricity I was frequently told to “outen the light.” One should always wear clean “gotchies” in case one was in an accident and taken the hospital. (Presuming the accident didn’t already soil one’s gotchies…)
In the summer I would catch “lightning bugs” at dusk “down back,” (i.e., fireflies in the backyard) and have a “conniption” when I was told it was time to come inside and I didn’t want to. Frequently, my father told me not to get my “bowels in an uproar” when I complained about my bedtime.
My mother would “go for an order” (grocery shopping) in the morning and pick up some “minced ham and summer sausage” (regular and Lebanon bologna), make a cake with “icning,” just in time to watch her “stories” (soap operas). Supper was sometimes “barbeque” (sloppy joes) or “pigeons” (not the bird) or “popeye” (pot pie).
I remember going “up to visit” my cousins on Sundays. (One went “up to visit” no matter which direction they lived.) My cousin and I used to have “loogie hawking” contest (a rather disgusting game to see who could project phlegm the farthest). One time I tripped and fell on the “macadam” (asphalt) and

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Where I come from people say, “ho, butt” as a greeting (loosely translated to “hello, buddy”) and watch Haitch Bee Oh (HBO). They drink Genny (Genesee Beer) and shoot pool at the “hosie” (volunteer fire company social club). Heck, I remember when we used to put “filum” in a “camra” to take “pitchers.”
On Sundays my father and I would sometimes hike out the “pole line” all the way to the “strippings” and shoot cans and bottles we’d find left over from a “kegger out da mountain.”
My father has given me a couple of phrases that still slip out. Whenever we were stuck in traffic he would invariably say, “the traffic is terrific.” (Must come from that Christmas song.) He’d also say “sum-ina-gum” instead of “son of a gun.” And my favorite is the word “shloptickabush.” It means to apply something heavily. Whenever he’d have me help him paint, for example, he’d tell me to shloptickabush as I applied the paint. The same idea applied if you used a lot of hair gel or put a lot of mayonnaise on your sandwich. To this day, I say shloptickabush as I spread mayonnaise or apply paint.
My wife thinks I’m nuts. I think I’m just a boy from the coal region.
I’m just saying…

MY FAVORITE DAY

Remember that movie My Favorite Year about a 1950s television comedy show writer reflecting on the greatest adventure in his career? Well, I started thinking not about my favorite year, but rather, my favorite day as a working actor.
It felt like my career was finally on track and leaving the station. I had just been cast in a $10 million film in one of the main supporting roles. My soon-to-be co-stars? Val Kilmer and F. Murray Abraham. The film was called The Prophet and was to be directed by Richard Dutcher, who was riding his own recent wave of success with the films God’s Army and Brigham City. The movie was going to shoot in Canada and upstate New York. I was cast as a historical figure that was an aide to Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. To look the part I needed to grow some serious 1850s muttonchops. Big, puffy sideburns that cradled my roly-poly face! In order not to look totally ridiculous, I also grew a moustache that I would later shave off once filming began.
But, as often happens, filming was delayed. So in the meantime I continued to audition for roles. My usual roles: guy at bar, neighbor, angry man, etc. So this audition was no different: I was reading for American Hostage #1. The film was called Live from Baghdad. The line was “Who the hell are you?” That’s all, thanks. Next… I guess my unusual mutton-chopped look made me stand out from the other actors and I was hired for the part.
I relay this as a lead in to my favorite day. The cast and crew of Live from Baghdad had just returned from filming overseas in Morocco and were back in LA wrapping up the final scenes. The location for my scene in the movie was the American Embassy compound in Baghdad but it was filmed at a private residence in the Hollywood Hills. I parked in a lot in Hollywood and took the production company shuttle van up into the narrow, winding roads leading to the location. After a quick stop at wardrobe, I was directed to my trailer (or rather my little room in the long trailer—but it did have my name on it!). I reviewed my sides (a miniaturized copy of the script with the scene I was performing) and then sat outside the trailer with the other actors waiting to be called to the set. I immediately recognized one of the actors, Peter Jason. You’ve seen him in movies and television for years (including Rio Lobo with John Wayne). He almost always plays tough, no-bullshit guys. In reality he is one of the silliest men I have ever met. He has a wonderful playful sense of humor and kept cracking us up all day (both on-set and off).
Once on set I found myself working with Michael Keaton, Helena Bonham Carter, and director Mick Jackson (LA Story among other films). Bruce McGill (D-Day in Animal House) walked past. He was not in my scene, rather prepping for the next one. One of the co-stars of the film was Joshua Leonard. I acted in a play with him when he was a child actor back in the late 1980s at the Pennsylvania Center Stage! His father, Robert Leonard, was one of my favorite college theater professors at Penn State. Josh was fresh off his success in The Black Witch Project. I couldn’t get over the coincidence. We chatted later in the afternoon and marveled at what a small world it can be.
The scene was very simple. CNN crew enters the embassy compound to talk with some of the American businessmen trapped there. I see them and say, “Who the hell are you?” Michael Keaton bounds up the steps into the kitchen and shakes my hand as he introduces his character “Robert Weiner, CNN…” And so the scene begins. All I have to do is react. Over and over again, take after take, handshake after handshake, I work at listening to Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter speak their lines as if I am hearing them for the first time. They, in turn feed off my reactions and those of the actors around me. If you watch the film you can see Michael Keaton and I playing off each other. It was a lot of fun; so much fun that I even sent away my stand-in (another actor who stands in your spot in between setups when they move and reposition the camera and lights for the next angle). I stood in for myself. Something inside told me not to let a single moment pass.
Finally, about ten hours after I arrived at the location, we wrapped. I signed out, gathered a few personal items from the trailer and walked over to the shuttle van for a ride back to my car in Hollywood. As I was navigating the alleys between trailers I saw Michael Keaton approaching in the opposite direction. He was talking on his cell phone. There was no one else around. As we passed, I looked at him and nodded with a smile. He stopped his phone conversation, extended his hand and we shook. “Good working with you today.” We then continued on our respective paths.
As the van pulled away and I looked over the Hollywood Hills, I appreciated the fact that although we shook hands all day long in each take, this handshake was between me and him, not characters. He could have easily ignored me, but didn’t. He made me feel that I had done a good and proper job with a rather insignificant role. It’s a feeling that I’ll never forget. I remember the day with great fondness: My Favorite Day.
Oh, and about the muttonchops and co-starring with Val Kilmer? Cash flow problems delayed the film, Val Kilmer bowed out, and apparently the director was later excommunicated from the Church of Latter Day Saints. As for me, I finally shaved those bushy sideburns and moustache and returned to hustling for my next big break.
But it’s comforting to know that even though those muttonchops didn’t appear with Val Kilmer, they surely work sharing the screen with Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter!
I’m just saying…

Up, Up, and Away!

My dance card at REPS is filling up nicely. As I’ve previously mentioned, I will be directing recreations of the Norman Corwin classic radio play “Descent of the Gods” as well as an episode from Night Beat called “Wanna Buy a Story?” But now I’ve just learned that I will play the Man of Steel in a 1945 episode of “The Adventures of Superman” and perform in “The Halls of Ivy” recreation later that same day. Think of it! Me as Superman? On radio everything is possible. Even that! REPS will be

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held in Seattle, June 22-24, 2012.

Norman Corwin book published

The book I edited for Norman Corwin is now available at BearManor Media! “Memos to a New Millennium: The Final Radio Plays of Norman Corwin” began last July when Norman agreed to select previously unpublished radio plays for this book. It was a sincere honor to work with him on this book and, following his death in October, to see it through to completion. The foreword by William Shatner is quite special, as well.

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