Archive for March, 2013

I realized a couple days ago that I’ve been focusing a lot on negative things in regards to my Mom. Part of what makes the story so interesting (and cathartic for me) is writing about all the crazy, off the wall shit she did. A lot of that ends up being negative, because the things she did were either negative in and of themselves or had negative ramifications (my upbringing is probably the root of some of my more serious problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD for instance). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I don’t hate my Mom. I don’t even blame her for most of the stuff she did. Her actions stemmed from an illness (albeit a mental one) – and one she is no more responsible for than someone who comes down with the flu. Some in my life think it’s strange that I don’t blame her more or carry a grudge. For one, carrying a grudge isn’t my thing – besides, I have enough other things to worry about in my life. Secondly, at the heart of it all she’s a good person – more messed up than most, perhaps, but still a good person. I have no doubt she would take a bullet for me in an instant (she said as much multiple times when I was growing up and the Mafia was supposedly stalking us). I don’t doubt, too, that she would give me her last dollar, or do anything she could to otherwise help me. Perhaps this wouldn’t come about in a conventional way – likely, it wouldn’t. She would get it into her head I desperately needed something I didn’t ask for (and didn’t actually need) and get it for me. I learned a long time ago not to question this, and just accept it as generosity even if the gift itself isn’t particularly on the mark. Most of what she does, however misguided, is out of a sense of love. A friend told me a few days ago that my Mom is drowning in good intentions. I think that’s pretty accurate.

In short, this is one of the reasons this blog has been so hard for me to write. Obviously, a lot of the stuff (I speak mainly of her delusions) had to be kept “secret” and never talked about, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of pulling back the curtain on my family, and that feels weird. Almost like a betrayal sometimes. That’s one reason, I think, that I don’t write even more often (though I’m sure twice a week is plenty for you guys to read). To illustrate the importance of what I’m talking about, maybe I should give you a peek into my family dynamic a little more. Grandma knew, I think – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with Mom. For all I know, something had been wrong all her life. The subject of her temper (and especially any delusions) was carefully sidestepped, at least by Grandma. Granted, she came from a different generation – one where mentally ill family members were hauled away to the nut hatch by the state. I don’t doubt that some part of her feared that outcome. Whenever Mom would yell or throw fits, Grandma would either stay silent or take Mom’s side. Whatever the issue was – let’s say I wasn’t practicing often enough – Grandma would come up to me after the storm was over and talk to me about it.


Grandma: Come on. Let’s practice your piano.

Me: Why? She’s just being ridiculous.

Grandma: We better do it. I don’t want your mother to yell.
And we’d practice, or clean my room, or do my homework or whatever it was that Mom was bent out of shape about. Sometimes – usually – it had little basis in actual reality. But when it did, it made things a little easier to manage. My point is, we went on like that. Heavy rains would come, the dam would creak and groan, and Grandma would come along with sandbags and shore it up. The dam never actually broke, in that the underlying issues were never addressed – Mom wasn’t told she ought to get help, or that she was nuts, or that she was being unreasonable. That dam didn’t break largely because of Grandma. She loved Mom. She loved Tim and I. She wanted the family to stay together no matter what, and I wanted the same. Love covers a multitude of sins. Grandma was empathetic about everything – even sympathetic – without acknowledging it directly. Mom didn’t act like a nut – she “got upset”. Mom didn’t threaten suicide or think the Mafia was tapping our phones – that subject was simply not brought up. I suspect those with a similar upbringing will know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember one time, towards the end of her life, I had a long talk with Grandma about Mom. I was an adult by then, and had come to some difficult conclusions – mainly that the things Mom said happened didn’t happen, and I had come to accept that the majority of my childhood was based around delusions. Anyway, I started talking about the past – hers specifically and ours as a family – just to get her warmed up and maybe prime her for some answers.


Me: Grandmom…why is Mom the way she is?

She thought a long time before sighing.

Grandma: I don’t know. I don’t know why your Mother is the way she is.

Me: She is crazy, right? It’s not just me.

Nothing from Grandma. She averted her gaze and ran her fingers through her brown hair.

Me: Has she always been like that?

Silence for a while.

Grandma: Family is all you have. Your Mom and Timmy, they’ll be with you for your whole life. You have to hang on to family.

I told her I would.

More silence.

Grandma: Did I ever tell you how your Grandfather and I met?
She had, many times. I asked her to tell me again, though. My point is she knew perfectly well – maybe all too well – that Mom had deeper issues than just having a “temper” or “getting upset”. But you didn’t talk about it, because to talk about it would be to expose your daughter’s nakedness. And you don’t do that, you cover it up.

My Grandmother wasn’t the only one who felt family loyalty should be above all else. I remember being at Uncle Richard’s one time, and seeing a headshot of a girl I recognized in the trashcan by his chair.


Me: Isn’t that Alison?

Uncle Richard gazed down at the garbage can. Alison gazed back up. I had seen her a few times – she had the lesson before me on occasion.

Uncle Richard: Yes. And do you know why it’s in there?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: She left her family. You don’t do that. You never do that.
I looked down into the trash. I thought Uncle Richard might be being a bit harsh on Alison, but I got the message. Family is family. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it is.

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We had just sat down in the studio, and Uncle Richard was talking excitedly about a book.

Uncle Richard: Have you ever heard of the Bermuda Triangle?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: It’s interesting. Amelia Erhart’s plane got lost there. Countless ships go through there and never return. Sometimes they see old ships that have sunk hundreds of years ago. Sometimes they see ghosts.

Goosebumps prickled on my arms, and I was instantly intrigued.

Me: What do you think it is?

Uncle Richard: Some say it’s a natural phenomenon – like gigantic magnet. Some say it’s a doorway to another dimension.

He was so excited about this book he was reading, and so impressed with this author that he actually went to hear her lecture on the subject. The thought of a place that sucked ships in – a place where people saw ghosts – stuck in my head. In many ways it never left. I asked Russ about it the following week, and a funny look came over his face.

Russ: There’s something to it, man. I went through there once. I was doing a gig on a cruise ship and we went really close to the Triangle.  Anyway, during the night my Dad walked into my room – we had this huge conversation while I was laying in bed. I’d fall asleep for a while, I’d wake up and he’d be there. This happened a few times. Then, one time I woke up and he was gone. My Dad had been dead for like, 10 years, though. Swear to God.

I imagined being on a ship and seeing people who weren’t really there – and maybe being stuck in that place forever. I got goosebumps again. Thinking about such things was a nice diversion from the other things going on.

By this point in my life, I had begun to have severe headaches – migraines, really. They’d come on suddenly, and I’d clutch my head and just scream. My stomach, too, was in knots all the time – it felt like I was digesting balls of icy glass. We went to several doctors, but nothing ever showed up on the tests. As a kid, I didn’t understand what was going on, which only added to the phenomenon. As an adult, I see that I was under severe stress – the Mafia was watching us, and Joey Lawrence was plotting to ruin my career (I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek, of course). Mom’s delusions about people being out to get me got more and more elaborate. Every day, she’d issue new warnings.

Mom: I don’t care where you are, if you put a glass down and walk away from it, you never drink from it again. Understand?

Me: Because it could be poisoned?

Mom: Or drugs. Someone could be trying to get you high so you get addicted to drugs and arrested.

I took the advice to heart, and to this day I never drink out of a glass if it’s been out of my sight for even a second. While as a kid this was fueled by pure paranoia, as an adult it is simply an empty habit which annoys and confounds people (though maybe there’s a little paranoia peeking out every now and then).

One day, Mom appeared particularly happy. I asked her why.

Mom: Because I made a deal.

Me: Oh, did The Answer come back?

Mom: I wish! No, it’s nothing like that. But I think I found a way to get Joey off our backs.

Me: Okay, good.

Mom: I told Russ that if they’d let you have music, Joey could have acting. You guys can split it, that way you won’t compete with each other.

Again, looking back, I was no competition whatsoever to Joey – he had a totally different look. He played the teenage heart throb, and any acting roles I got would be the egghead. Besides the age gap, we wouldn’t have been going up for the same roles in anyone’s wildest imagination. Regardless, Mom was in no position to make deals of any kind – let alone the kind she thought she was making. The whole premise is ridiculous, and I see that now. I imagine that it’s a lot like a cult, though. From the inside, everything makes perfect sense. You hear it every day and you live with it, you breathe it, you eat it. From the outside, it’s utter nonsense. Thank God I’m on the outside now.

Anyway, she had absolute blue convulsions when Joey came out with an album. She literally threw fits – she felt that “they” had gone back on the deal and now we would get nothing. She stormed into Russ’s studio to confront him about the whole thing. As usual, her anger completely melted when she saw him – she kind of went into a trance and got that far off, glassy look. She did ask repeatedly things like “Is The Answer coming back?” and “Did Joey take our spot for real?” Russ gave his typical assurances (which were somehow both positive and vague at the same time) and Mom was mollified temporarily. The Joey thing flared up repeatedly, though, and still does to this day. Not always with him specifically but every once in a while she’ll latch onto other people (usually celebrities or semi-celebrities) and insist they are plotting against us. Most recently, she’s been telling me with a straight face that The Jonas Brothers took my spot and I have lost another shot at superstardom. What the hell do the Jonas Brothers have to do with whether or not I’m a successful musician? Still, she insists they plotted against us and sidetracked my career. It would be funny if she wasn’t completely serious. It is kind of funny, though.

I remember sitting in a makeup chair, on a commercial set. The hair and makeup lady was fooling with my hair – combing, spraying, styling. Suddenly she paused.

Makeup Lady: Oh, hey.

I raised my eyebrows.

Makeup Lady: You’ve got gray hairs.

Me: I do?

Makeup Lady: Yeah, you totally do. A couple, actually.

Me: Huh.

She called over a colleague who also marveled over this.

Makeup Lady: I wonder how a kid your age gets gray hair? Must be a sign of high intelligence.

Or stress. When you spend enough of your childhood in the Bermuda Triangle, gray hairs happen.

Woah.

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Russ
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

With Nancy in the mix, Mom started getting concerned that Russ’s other students were vying to take my place. She was concerned with stuff like that in general – she’d be at auditions, checking out the “Competition”. She’d get worried if some kid came along that looked similar to me but gave a great read, or was more handsome or had a cooler look. She had these little rivalries that went on in her head with people – they rarely ever even came to the surface, beyond private conversations with me. She would decide (based mostly on whether or not they were “Competition” and whether or not they were any good) that the mother was nasty, or the kid was ugly, or they were out to get us. I remember one kid, who was always at auditions with us, and his mother would sit there and talk to my Mom. Now, I grant you, this lady was a little creepy. She was always talking about how hot her son was or how if she were a girl she’d be into him. This went on for, oh…maybe a couple of months. One day – for no reason anyone was aware of – Mom blew her top. If there was a conversation that preceded this, it was simply the average banter of stage mothers sitting in a casting office.

Mom: Tommy has had his day in the sun! He’s finished! It’s our turn.

Tommy’s Mom: …what?

Mom: And…and…if you think he’s so hot why don’t you just sleep with him, then!

The kid’s mom was flabbergasted. Her jaw was open and she was just stunned into silence. She never talked to Mom again, which was just fine as far as she was concerned. I thought it was kind of funny, though a little uncalled for.

Occasionally – and this happened maybe a dozen times over my career – Mom would latch onto someone and consider them a real threat. Usually this was someone we had zero contact with (or maybe, at best, saw them once or twice) – yet somehow she got it into her head they were behind the scenes scheming against us. One such person was Joey Lawrence. You guys might remember him from the 90’s sitcom Blossom – he was famous for saying “Woah.” a lot.  He was one of Russ’s students – hence, we had a tenuous (at best) connection with him. To my knowledge, though, we never met him in person so I really don’t know how he popped into her head like he did. I remember Mom insisting Joey and/or his family were tapping our phones (they weren’t), or that Joey would try to set me up to go to jail for drugs. This is literally the conversation we had, at least a couple times.

Mom: Danny, I want you to keep your backpack zipped up all the time.

Me: …okay? There’s nothing anyone would want to steal. Just books…

Mom: No, I think Joey might want to put something in it.

I knew exactly who she was talking about – she had been fussing about him nonstop. She had even called and asked my agent if she knew and worked with Joey. I guess she was trying to find out information or something.

Me: Mom, nobody is going to plant drugs on my backpack.

Mom: Well, they might! And if they do, your career is over! You will be in jail!

There was no point in arguing – she was really wound up. I have only ever seen fervent defense attorneys and earnest TV Preachers speak with as much passion and emphasis as she did.

Mom: You. Will be. A DITCH DIGGER.

I laughed – I couldn’t help it. The word struck me funny.

Mom: I AM SERIOUS! If you don’t zip up your backpack and keep it with you AT ALL TIMES, you will rot in jail and be a ditch digger.

Me: Okay, Mom.

I had to look out the car window – I could no longer suppress the big smirk that was coming and I didn’t want her to see it. This whole conversation – especially how grave she was being – struck me as amusing for some reason. Besides – I was about 80-90% sure she was confused, at best. But there was that little part of me that wondered if she wasn’t right – I was a kid after all. As far as I knew, my Mom knew more than I did (at least, she claimed to have a lot of important knowledge about things I “couldn’t know yet”). Even today, with years of therapy under my belt I question my own perceptions often. I am sure – fairly sure, anyway – that I perceive something a certain way. But maybe I’m wrong. And then the self doubt sets in. As a result, I’m probably the most thorough person I know (besides my brother) – I research things to the end of the earth, just to be conclusively sure. Still, doubt sometimes lingers. I think it’s habit formed from growing up in a household where questioning perceptions was a daily (even hourly) activity.

She’d harass Russ about Joey too – asking Russ if Joey was conspiring against us (Russ told her he was not). Asking Russ if we had anything to “worry about” in regards to Joey. Russ would usually tell her no or give her one of his ambiguous answers. Regardless of what he said, she would analyze the hell out of it. If he was straightforward and told her “No, Joey Lawrence isn’t plotting against you” she would inevitably decide it was not the “right Russ” that told us this – it was possibly a Russ who was in league with Joey and the shadowy powers aligned against us.

I asked Mom a few times why all these people I didn’t even know were out to get me. I assumed these people had lives and families – surely they couldn’t have time to just come after me 24/7. I don’t remember her exact wording, but the upshot was that i was so talented that I was a serious threat to the “system”. And they either needed to “make” me (i.e. the Mafia backing me) or they needed to get rid of me – get me thrown in jail, or assassinated. I don’t care how old you are – if hearing that doesn’t give you one hell of a complex, I don’t know what will.

 

 

So I found out a couple days ago that my old friend Gasper died. Ironically, he’d been on my mind for quite some time – a couple years, in fact – and I had been intending to call him. Turns out he died in 2009, and I never even knew. The guy was a close friend and confidant of Uncle Carlo – he was his driver, his butler, and even his barber. Uncle Carlo didn’t have a lot of hair, so it was a fairly easy job. Gasper and his wife Carmella were always very sweet. He had these giant old man glasses and she had a beehive hairdo – they were very New York Italian, if you know what I mean. Of course, his real name wasn’t Gasper – I don’t even remember if I knew his proper name – but it was a nickname that Uncle Carlo always called him by. Gasper would tell you a story about anything – didn’t matter what it was. Uncle Carlo told me once that if a peanut fell on the floor, Gasper would tell a 3 hour epic about the peanut falling on the floor. That wasn’t too far off the mark. I think that’s where he got his nickname – he talked so much he needed to gasp for air (at least, that was one of Uncle Carlo’s jokes about him). Gasper and Carmella were often around when we were with Uncle Carlo. After Uncle Carlo died, they really reached out and tried to maintain a connection. It was hard, though, because my life was constantly in motion. It wasn’t easy to run up to Brooklyn and visit, especially when we had put in a full day of driving to New York City. They invited us over to their house a couple times for dinner – Carmella made a great eggplant parmigiana (first time I’d ever tried eggplant, since Grandma didn’t like to make it). Gasper even took us to Little Italy once and showed us all the old places. It was certainly a singular experience to be showed around Little Italy by an old, dyed in the wool New York Italian.

After Uncle Carlo had died, Gasper took care of everything. Uncle Carlo had no immediate family any of us were ever aware of – he had no kids, and his wife had died years before. Really, the only family he had were Gasper, Carmella, along with myself, Mom and Tim. Another close friend insisted that Uncle Carlo would have left us all some money – he was certainly well off and he was an old school immigrant. It’s entirely possible he hid money in the walls of his apartment (he didn’t trust banks – in light of the recent financial crisis, I can’t say I do either). But, supposedly, he didn’t have a will – some people were very suspicious of the fact that Gasper took over everything. I thought it kind of made sense, though, all things considered. Gasper pooled all of Uncle Carlo’s stuff at his house and invited us over one day.

Gasper: You wan annating, you take it eh?

There wasn’t a whole lot that was meaningful to me – maybe a few pictures. He did give me all of Uncle Carlo’s sheet music (a gigantic treasure trove of it that 20 years later I have yet to fully explore) as well as his writings (he was the author of at least 2 books on singing) and some vocal exercises he had personally created. I remember him looking at Uncle Carlo’s full size grand piano – a piano that had been played by legends, and on which I had been taught by Uncle Carlo himself.

Gasper: You wanna piano?

I would have loved it. I remember thinking, at 10, that even though I had a piano that meant the world to me I would have loved to have this particular instrument. There was so much to it. I told him I’d love it, but Mom intervened.

Mom: Where are we going to put it, Danny? It’s huge.

Me: I dunno. We could find a space…

Gasper scratched his well oiled gray head.

Gasper: Well, I dunno what to do wit’ it.

I remember him being so angry with some of Uncle Carlo’s students – the famous ones, anyway – for not thanking him when they got awards or publicly commenting on his death.

Gasper: Who are dey? Dey ain’t nobody. HE was somebody. He was the Maestro!

As far as I know, that piano sat there for 20 years. I’ve thought of it – and him – often. I don’t think Gasper would have gotten rid of it – he had too much reverence for Uncle Carlo to do that. Had he kept it, I could have simply called at any time and asked for it. I would have gladly paid a fortune to piano movers to get it here. Regardless of whether or not he kept it, it’s likely gone now though – along with the rest of his stuff. I have to admit feeling some pangs of loss regarding that, too.

He called us once, a few years back. Evidently Carmella had recently passed away. He was really upset and lonely and looking for someone to talk to. Mom totally blew him off – she talked little (but politely) – and never called him back. I remember being a bit down hearing about Carmella – she was a sweet lady. And I feel bad that he reached out and we never really did anything with it.

It’s times like this I feel old, even though I’m 30. Another strand from the life I had – and the people I knew and loved – has come permanently unstrung. I grant you that many of my friends were older – some even in their 70’s when I was just a kid – but as I grew older and the losses piled up I feel old. I remember one of Grandma’s friend dying – someone she grew up with and knew well. This lady came to our house practically twice a week. We broke the news delicately to Grandma, expecting an outpouring of emotion. Instead, she just sat on the couch in the den. She sighed.

Grandma: Yeah. Well.

One might think her reaction was callous. I don’t. There was so much emotion packed into those two words. She threw up her hands and raised her eyebrows. I knew what she was saying. Another string had come unstrung. It can’t be replaced, it can’t be retied. There’s nothing to do about it.

Uncle Richard, too, knew the feeling – perhaps better even than I do. I remember walking into his studio, just after he got news a friend had passed away. He was – understandably – brooding.

Uncle Richard: I can’t do this.

I raised my eyebrows and listened.

Uncle Richard: I can’t miss anybody else. This is selfish as hell, but I want to be missed. Not miss more people.

I got it. I understood. When I get up in the morning feeling depressed, and I roll my bones out of bed, and I shuffle to the bathroom to take a piss and a shower, I look in the mirror. I feel much, much older than the reflection that stares back at me. I remember coming to the shocking realization not too long ago (which culminated in another round of therapy for me) that all my friends were dead.

I sigh. I look in the mirror and I shrug.

Yeah. Well.

 

From my Grandmother‘s days as a mover and shaker in the courthouse, she learned a lot of things about how to “get ahead”. One of the things that stuck with me the most is one of her pet phrases:

Grandma: Always be nice to the secretary.

The big boss may be who you want in to see, but the secretary can make that a lot easier – or a lot more difficult. I remember watching an episode of a show (I think it might have been Mad Men, but I’m not sure) where the ladies in the phone room didn’t patch through calls of people they didn’t like. I remember thinking to myself “If only he had thought to drop off chocolates.

But, basically, that was her big secret – be nice to everybody. Chat with them. Bring them a home made pie or cake or chocolate or something. It worked wonders for her, because everyone adored her – from the secretaries on up. I remember her telling me a story once where a convict walked into her office and started getting vulgar. He sang her a dirty song about Dr. Pepper (for the record, she couldn’t remember it but I would have given a great deal to hear it – it sounds hilarious), and a judge threw the guy up against the wall and made him apologize. Such is the power of confectionery sugar and a winning personality.

Anyway, I try to apply Grandma’s philosophy in my own life and have had some success. Long story short, it pays to be nice to everyone – not just “important” people. But I tell you the story about secretaries to tell you about one secretary in particular. Russ had a lady named Nancy working for him. She was nice enough, I suppose, but her and Mom did not get along whatsoever. I’m not sure how it started, exactly, but Mom started insisting that Nancy wasn’t putting her through to Russ when she called his studio. She probably directly confronted Nancy about this, and Nancy (not surprisingly) took umbrage at this slur on her character. Whatever the cause, bad blood roiled between them. Mom insisted Nancy said stuff (and let’s be real – there’s a good chance Nancy didn’t actually say it since Mom heard things), Nancy got pissed, Mom complained to Russ, Russ would get irritated. As a kid, I didn’t doubt for one second that Nancy was a snake in the grass – Mom thought she was, and that was the end of it. Mom would insist she would threaten us on a regular basis.

Nancy: I’ll put a stop to you. You’ll never be successful as long as I can help it.

Truly, why would she care? And even if she did, who says she had any power to carry out her threats? Nonetheless, Mom believed Nancy was the fox in the proverbial hen house. If we needed a last minute appointment for a lesson, and we called Nancy, Russ “didn’t have any openings” (a claim which may or may not have been legitimate). Sometimes he wouldn’t show up for lessons, and Mom would insist Nancy had told him we cancelled and didn’t tell us so we would get mad at Russ and stop taking lessons (yes, that was her exact wording). Truthfully, he probably went to the race track and forgot. Although I suppose it is possible Nancy maliciously forgot to tell us when he cancelled.

Although she may not have been the master manipulator Mom insisted she was, she wasn’t exactly someone I was prone to like. She wore very tight (and very short) skirts, lots and lots of makeup, bleached her hair, chewed gum, and was very very snarky. Add in the fact that she was about 15 years too old to dress like she did…and you have a pretty complete picture of her. Mom used to complain to Russ that she dressed like a hooker. Russ didn’t seem to mind very much.

Russ once told us directly that Nancy doesn’t do anything but what she’s told to do.

Russ: She schedules who I tell her to and doesn’t schedule who I tell her not to. You know?

Assuming he could be taken at his word (which is a rather large assumption – Russ ran his mouth pretty much all the time and often said conflicting things), one can see that it’s possible that none of this was Nancy’s fault. Russ may have been telling her that he had this nut whose son was taking lessons and he needed her to never put her messages through or never schedule us for a lesson. Regardless, difficult secretaries are no match for the willpower of a crazy person (I’m convinced that not much is, actually) – Mom got the lessons by hook or by crook. She would call Russ directly, and if he didn’t get back to us she would drop by unannounced and extract a lesson time from him. These trips usually involved getting to Russ’s studio long before he was there and waiting outside for hours. I was quite annoyed with Nancy for the fact that we had to do this. Sometimes, she’d come driving up and see us already there waiting for Russ. She’d roll her eyes, walk in, and sit behind her desk (as an adult, I completely understand this reaction. As a kid, it pissed me off). Mom would inevitably follow her in, and Nancy would tell her that Russ wasn’t coming in today. Mom would not believe her, of course, and we would leave – usually just to go around the block until Nancy left.

It didn’t take long for Nancy to be involved in a wider conspiracy. There were certain other students that Russ had that Mom insisted were “competition”. She picked them apart, analyzed everything about them, and usually decided they were out to get us. She usually determined Nancy was involved with them somehow and they were getting our lesson slots because Nancy favored them. No doubt she was filling Russ’s ears with venom about us and telling him that I wasn’t talented, and that these other students were more worthy of his time (and, ostensibly, his “mafia” connections). Although such situations are few and far between, some things can’t be solved with a box of donuts.

When casting people and agents found out I had a little brother (and that he had a good personality and was photogenic), we started getting a lot of calls to play brothers. It seemed to appeal to a lot of clients to pick “real life brothers” vs cobbling actors together and worrying about whether or not they look related. I don’t remember everything we did, but there were several Kmart commercials and at least one Kentucky Fried Chicken TV spot. Food commercials were always a kind of rough. They wanted you to hold the product a certain way, bite into it a certain way, etc. Most of the time, you picking up the sandwich and taking a bite are two completely different shots, and there’s a reason for that. They build the “perfect” sandwich for the shot where it’s in your hands – I watched them do it with toothpicks and glue. By the time it was done it looked good, but it was certainly not edible. I remember looking at that great looking sandwich and thinking about biting into toothpicks. I shuddered. Anyway, that’s the sandwich you pick up for the shot (or the one that they show the closeup of, anyway). Then – in a completely different shot – you bite the “real” sandwich – this one is, thankfully edible. The cardinal rule, at least with mom and my agent, was if they ask if you like their product you say yes – even if you don’t. Even though everyone I’ve ever encountered was a pro who understands a job is a job (even if you don’t use or like the product), you don’t want to risk offending someone. It’s just not good form to say someone’s product sucks and expect them to hire you anyway. Admittedly, though, I’ve been in a casting office with actors who blasted the product they were auditioning for. Their comments were usually really funny, but I kept my chuckles to myself and buried my head in my script.

Speaking of making the “perfect” product I once did a cereal commercial where they poured out tons of boxes to find perfect, unbroken pieces to fill a bowl with. There’s a lot that goes into a commercial that you wouldn’t even know.

I once went on an audition where I had to chug Coke. I like Coke fine, but it was rough to chug it – burned the whole way down. I had another one – I think it was for Hellmann’s mayonnaise – where they wanted you to take a bite out of a slice of bread with mayonnaise on it. I don’t remember details, but I think I was supposed to bite, smile, and say “Thanks, Mom!” or something like that. I remember having a little bit of trouble chewing it fast enough and saying my line, so the casting lady made a suggestion.

Casting Lady: Just shove it in your cheek with your tongue and say your line.

Not a bad idea, and it worked rather well. Can’t say I cared much for having a huge bite of break and mayonnaise sitting in my mouth, but them’s the breaks.

Anyway, Tim and I were doing this KFC commercial – it’s a family sitting around a table eating dinner (KFC, of course). I don’t remember if there were even any lines – I don’t think there were. I don’t know if it was a long shoot, but it certainly felt that way. We passed the bucket, took a big bite of our chicken leg, and when the director yelled “cut” we spat it out into a bucket. We did so many freakin’ takes of that. I started off feeling pretty hungry, and a little disappointed I wasn’t able to eat the chicken (I don’t remember if there was a reason we had to spit it out, but it’s what the director said to do so it’s what I did). By the end, I felt absolutely disgusting. I had been chomping on chicken legs all damn day. My hands were greasy and if I smelled any one of the Colonel’s 7 herbs and spices I was gonna spew. I had lost whatever semblance of an appetite I had. For the record, I never ate KFC again. For years, if I saw a red and white bucket I’d get nauseous. There’s a story that went around back in the day that Ronald McDonald (or rather, the actor that played him) totally flipped his shit on a commercial set. After doing however many hundreds of McDonald’s commercials, he had evidently become a militant vegetarian. He tried to keep doing the commercials even though he had grown to despise the product. Supposedly, he overturned a table, started screaming, and stormed out.

Ronald McDonald: I’M NOT PEDDLING THIS SHIT TO KIDS ANYMORE!

I will say that the mental image of Ronald McDonald blowing a gasket gives me a good laugh. Obviously, they found another actor who was more than willing to fill Ronald’s big red shoes – even though I think the actor was being pretty unprofessional,  I can empathize. I can’t even imagine how many burgers he must have chowed down on, grinned, and spit out. That’s got to make you at least a little crazy.

 

When Russ was in the mood, he liked to talk about these wild theories he had. Most are very interesting (though probably amount to pop psychology at best), but I think he liked them because they added to this aura of mysticism about him. Anyway, one day we were sitting in his studio – I think it was after a lesson – and he was talking about people.

Russ: You know, gang, I think there’s two sides to everyone.

Me: Oh, really?

Russ: Yep. Everyone has a bad side and a good side, and they’re equal.

Me: Interesting.

Russ: Separate but equal!

He chuckled at his own joke. Mom and I laughed.
He got up from the piano bench, his 60’s style black shoes making shuffling noises on the carpet.

Russ: I’ll show you!

He grabbed a piece of sheet music and ran over to his wall.

The wall of his studio was covered – nearly every inch of it – with headshots of students (the more notable ones, at least). He ran up to one and placed the sheet music evenly over their face, dividing it in half.

Russ: See?

Me: Huh. Looks normal.

Russ: Right! Now…

He moved the sheet music to the other side.

Russ: What do you see?

Me: Huh. Kind of creepy looking. A little evil, maybe.

Russ laughed.

Russ: Wild, huh?

Mom and I agreed, and he ran around the studio doing the same thing to many of the headshots. He finally made it over to mine. A picture of Joey Lawrence with Johnny Carson stared down above me.

Russ: Even you, I bet. Look.

I looked. He was right.

Me: Huh. Interesting.

Russ: I know, man, I know!

He started talking a little bit about Freudian psychology – how one side of us is the “higher self” and the other side is the “lower self”. He called the lower self the Ud Factor, for some reason, and thought this was pretty amusing. Thereafter, Mom announced that this was a different “Russ” and she called him “Mr. Ud Factor” (or “Mr Ud”). The talk of psychology, along with the fact that his hair was several shades lighter, got her convinced that this was a totally new person dressed up as Russ. I actually noted myself that his hair was more blonde than usual – almost a white, really – and filed that information away for later examination. What I determined was that he was dying his hair, which accounted for the shade difference – a fact she flatly rejected.

Mom: No, no. It’s a different Russ. It’s a different personality and everything.

Me: Mom, I don’t think so. Honestly. He’s just dying his hair.

Mom: Well, don’t you remember when Johnny Cash came to teach you?

I was quiet.

Mom: And Ross Perot? And Gaffe?

I held my tongue and my breath. I had strayed a little too far into unknown territory. I had never outright challenged her perceptions before – at least, not in any direct way. She looked thoughtful for a moment, then got that thousand yard stare. She started mumbling to herself just under her breath – having what appeared to be conversations. I sighed.

Mr. Ud would only appear a couple times – usually whenever Russ was due to dye his hair again, or was in a bad mood. But Mr. Ud didn’t interest her as much as the others – Roy Orbison, Buck Owens, Andre the Giant – all the celebrities who supposedly dressed up as my music teacher and came to teach me. When I pressed her on why exactly they were doing this, Mom insisted they were “scouting talent”.

Me: That doesn’t even make any sense. Why would they do that?

Mom: Because it’s an easy way to do it. They can see how people are when they’re not starstruck or intimidated.

Me: And how is this related to the Mafia?

Mom: Because they’re laundering money through there. It’s a front.

I didn’t really see the logic in this, and told her. She got extremely edgy.

Mom: Dammit, Danny. Just stop. I know what I know, okay?

I stopped.