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…