Archive for the ‘Acting’ Category

I don’t think I understood what was going on – Mom had just gotten off the phone with my agent. I had heard Mom’s side of the conversation, and I pieced together that something serious was going on – I just didn’t know what. We had a brick cell phone – I mean one of those huge, blocky things with a long rubber antenna, terrible reception, and cost a small fortune to talk on. I knew this call must have been important – otherwise, Mom would have surely pulled off and called back from a payphone. She looked at me thoughtfully.

Mom: The agency is closing its doors.

Me: What!?

Mom: They’re done. They’re bankrupt.

I was floored. The agency was huge – one of the largest in the industry – with offices on both coast and stars on their roster.

Me: What in the hell…

Mom: I don’t know. We’re supposed to stop in tomorrow and talk.

When we stopped in to the office, everything seemed different. I mean, the furnishings and whatnot were pretty much the same, but the mood was totally different. You ever watch a hive of bees when they’re slightly drugged or sleepy? They move, but it’s like they’re underwater. That’s sort of how it felt. What once was a bustling hive of activity was now a dying colony. Nobody had a spring in their step. Desks were empty. Some people were even in the process of putting things in boxes. We had heard rumors – clients were jumping ship by the truckload. Some people weren’t getting their checks, and hadn’t been for some time. The previous owner of the agency had somehow embezzled millions, or the new owners – who had taken over only a couple years prior – had run it into the ground, or maybe it was just an innocent accounting error. I had heard the owner himself was involved in some sort of insurance scam – that he paid thieves to steal his art so he could file an insurance claim. Allegedly, he paid the thieves off and kept the art for himself. Even if half of these were true, this was not what you wanted to her – not, at least, when you worked for (or with) one of the biggest agencies in the business. Besides, going belly up as an agency  – at least one this size – was nearly unheard of at the time.

We sat down across from my agent of many years, who explained to us that we should start looking for other representation. Yes, the rumors were true, and the agency was broke. Embezzlement was suspected – accounts were frozen. The agents hadn’t been paid. Big stars weren’t even getting their checks. I let the conversation break over me like a wave, and didn’t say much. I just watched the two adults – my mother and my agent – talk, and soaked in the office. I liked that office, had practically lived there since I was 8, and was disappointed. I also knew it may be difficult to find an agent – if people were jumping ship like rats from such a big agency, other agents would be flooded with too much talent to even deal with. I sensed changes may be afoot, and they were.

We ended up moving to a smaller manager – Mom’s logic behind this was that we had a history with this person, and a manager might be better than an agent. (If you sign with an agent, you’re exclusive with that agent. If you sign with a manager, they send you out through many different agents, and you can kind of get a feel for who you work well with). I guess it was a good move, or at least a move that made some kind of sense. She was worried we’d get lost in the shuffle at a bigger agency, and I suppose that was a real possibility. I was still doing a significant amount of acting work – still making a living, supporting myself and 3 other people. Work had started to slow down a bit, but I attributed that to the fact that the agency was going under. When I signed up with my manager, I did work less. But the business always went in cycles – sometimes you were up, sometimes you were down. That’s just the way it was.

Mom felt she had some sort of personal relationship with the manager – they were quasi-acquaintances I guess – and she would talk to her quite a bit on the phone. I think she may have let her in on some of her craziness – her theories about the Mafia and Russ – because I eventually started getting the impression that she thought something was funny. Not funny as in off, funny as in ha ha. Especially as things wore on, whenever we stopped in, she’d just sort of sit behind the desk and listen to Mom and sort of have this smirk on her face. You know like when someone says or does something really stupid, and you have a hard time keeping a straight face? It was sort of like that, with maybe a little bit of patronizing thrown in. I can’t explain it any better than that. When I look back on this, I feel an odd mix of protectiveness and indignation, mixed with shame. Indignation, not that Mom should have been taken seriously by any means, but that she should have been respected. At the very least, not made a joke out of. Shame that she was obviously crazy, and I was lumped into that – it reflected on me, and affected my career trajectory.

I can see why maybe the manager got fed up – Mom would call and try to pump her for information, or try to get more auditions out of her. Add in the paranoia – Mom’s fear that certain people were my “competition” and out to get me, like Joey Lawrence or others – and I can see it seriously wearing thin. She even went on a kick for a while that this band called The Moffats were my direct competition, and taking away music opportunities from me. When she presented this to me, even I laughed at her. I stopped laughing when she bought several of their cassettes and listened to them over and over in the car, analyzing them. I managed to find one of their videos, so you guys can know what I’m talking about. What pissed me off even more is when this stuff got stuck in my head (which it unfortunately did). Watch the video and weep with me over the indignity I suffered.

 

Not to long after this, SAG went on strike. There had been strikes in my time, but none this widespread. If I recall correctly, they were striking over contracts for new media – things like shows and commercials on the internet, and higher wages. What I think the union hoped for was a short lived strike that got the clients back to the bargaining table, once they realized they couldn’t live without union actors. There was one problem: The clients realized they could live without union actors.

Reality TV started to pop up – things like Survivor and Big Brother – and as the strike wore on it became more and more commonplace. Networks decided to bypass the sitcoms of old, and just do more reality TV. It was cheaper – sometimes the “actors” (who were real people, at least in theory) weren’t even paid. Total win. What that meant for us as actors was that we couldn’t work, unless we wanted to do non-union stuff. That meant crossing the picket line, which meant losing your benefits and maybe getting kicked out of the union. I had years vested in the union at this point – a great health plan and a pension for when I retired. If I was kicked out, that was gone. Plus, non union work paid chump change by comparison. Non union might give you a few hundred dollars in a lump sum, vs a union gig of a thousand plus they paid you every time it aired. I know a lot of people who weren’t able to work. Auditions dried up. When they did come up, it was for junk. Gone were the big payday bookings I had grown up with. Those were bad days.

Mom didn’t know what to do. We had depended on my income for so long. She was afraid to get a “real job”, because it would tie her down for driving me out to auditions. So she tried things like stuffing envelopes, and get rich quick scams. When they didn’t work – and things became more desperate – she decided to deliver phone books. She took Tim and I along to help. I remember the interview process. The boss – I can’t remember his name – looked at the three of us skeptically. Me, my little brother, and my Mom.

Boss: You guys want to deliver phone books…?

Mom: Yes. My sons are actors – very famous actors, actually, you’ve probably heard a lot of their stuff on TV. Timmy was just in a movie…

Boss: Okay…

Mom: The union is on strike and they can’t work. So, we’re making ends meet right now. Yes. We’d like to deliver phone books.

He shrugged. I don’t think he much cared about our life story. We were just warm bodies to get the job done. We loaded up our car with phone books and drove our route. As per instructions, he didn’t want them tossed at the bottom of the driveway, but actually delivered to the door. It was my first real job – Tim’s too – that didn’t involve doing something we loved doing. I was game for it – I understood it was short term – but Tim was deeply unimpressed and complained the whole time.

The system was that we did the deliveries while Mom sat in the car. I remember one house we went to, and it had this really long driveway. Tim and I got out of the car together, and marched up towards the house. I watched him freeze in mid step. I was about to turn and ask what was wrong, when I heard a low growl. Across the yard was a huge behemoth of a dog – slobber was dripping from its jaws, and it was baring its teeth. It looked like it would eat us feet first if we came any closer. I was pretty freaking worried, but at the same time, I knew we were supposed to drop the phone book at the door of the house. It looked incredibly far away, though. I glanced from the house back to the sanctuary of the car – we were sort of between the two. I took a tentative step forward, and the dog let out another unholy growl.

Me: What do we do?

Tim: Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.

I was about to argue with him, when a second dog – not quite as big, but looking every bit as eager to consume human flesh – rounded the corner of the house.

Me: You’re right, bro. Fuck the phone book.

We backed slowly away, and at first it seemed like the dogs would stay put. I don’t know what it was – whether it was some arbitrarily determined distance or the sound our sneakers made on the blacktop – but the big dog decided to go for it. He started loping towards us and Tim and I broke into a dead run back to the car. We got in and breathlessly slammed the doors.

Mom: Did you do it?

Tim and I almost shouted in unison.

Me and Tim: NO!

Mom: Why?

Tim: There’s two freaking huge dogs. I’m not going to that door.

Mom leaned forward in the driver’s seat – she had been reclining it to shut her eyes – and saw the two dogs about halfway up the driveway. They never made it all the way to the car, but they were clearly pissed – growling and snapping.

Mom: We need to deliver it to the door, or we don’t get paid.

Me: There are worse things than not getting paid.

Tim: If you want to get paid so bad, you deliver it. I’m not going out there again.

Mom could see this was a losing battle, but I don’t think she really wanted us to go back out there again. To end the debate, I rolled down the window and chucked the phone book halfway up the driveway. I didn’t have a very good arm – it landed several feet in front of the dogs, and a little in the grass.

Not long after, Tim started refusing to go on deliveries. Although I dutifully went along for a while, I wasn’t much use to Mom other than as company – I’d usually get out of the car only with great reluctance. When she started delivering at 5 AM, I started refusing to go at all. It wasn’t long after this that she stopped delivering phone books altogether.

I’d like to tell you that things went back to the way they were – auditions once again became plentiful, and money rolled in. I’d like to tell you that Mom was wise and saved up the money Tim and I had made over the years – that it was somewhere safe, perhaps in a savings account or something. I can’t. The industry- or at least the part that I was involved in – did come back, but it was drips and drabs. There would never again be 5 auditions in a day. We’d be lucky if we went into the city a couple times a week. I worked, a little – my audition to booking ratio was still rather good – but it never did recover. Perhaps the title is a little misleading, in any case. It wasn’t the end, but rather the first couple serious body blows that would change things irrevocably. But if you think about it, you don’t wake up one morning and find all your plants dead. You wake up one morning and find them dying. You think to yourself “Oh…they’ll come back. Let me water them a bit.” But they don’t come back – they continue to wilt, little by little until they’re gone.

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

Ah, hairspray. And hair gel. And hair products in general, really. These were a daily part of my existence. My hair had to be perfect – Mom was always fussing with it. All the other actors in my age group were well coiffed – quite a few had the miserable existence (like myself) of being Helmet Heads. Helmet Head is what I called it when Mom sprayed way too much hairspray (CFCs be damned) and/or used so much gel that my hair wasn’t going anywhere. Literally not one strand out of place. I felt like it gave my hair a stiff, artificial look – under no circumstances would it have blown in the wind (which was kind of the point – the hair-do wouldn’t get messed up). Thus, I called it Helmet Head. It kind of felt like a helmet too. Back in the day, there was a huge emphasis on the actors looking “perfect” – you had to have great teeth, great hands, great hair. Ideally, blonde haired and thin. Look at commercials from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly thin, but I had perfect hair damn it. Mom would fuss and worry about my appearance. Some of this was stage mother stuff – lots of kids in the business had that experience. Sort of a helicopter mom who quasi-worshiped her son and obsessed over everything. The hair was such a big deal to her for whatever reason, though. She even insisted I get a perm at one point (a horrible experience at a cheap cut and blow place). Every once in a while, she’d just start picking on something else, though.

Mom: Let me see your teeth.

I showed her.

Mom: They’re horrible. They’re so crooked!

I couldn’t argue, but I had seen worse – regardless, I didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction. She acted as if she had never seen my teeth before in her life.

Mom: Let me see again.

I showed her again.

Mom: They’re so yellow…come closer.

After a while I got tired of holding my mouth open for her to peer in – I wasn’t at the dentists, for God’s sake – and shut my mouth. Cue a never ending parade of retainers, cleanings, and dental visits. They’re still not straight, by the way – a little better, I guess, but by no means the perfect, bleached white teeth Mom fervently sought.

Sometimes she’d just be looking over at me and blurt something out.

Mom: God, you’re getting really fat Danny.

I was surprised because this came out of nowhere.

Me: What?

Mom: Look at your gut.

I looked at my gut. I was kind of getting a pot belly, I guess.

Mom: You’re not going to book if you’re fat. You have to lose weight.

She decided on a whim to enroll us all in a weight management program. I don’t remember which one it was – I think it may have been Weight Watchers. The first day, she got into an argument with the lady leading the group.

Weight Counselor: So portion control is a foundation to weight loss. You can’t just have a big plate of spaghetti. You need to limit your intake.

Mom became alarmed.

Mom: Well, what do you mean that I can’t have a big plate?

Weight Counselor: You need to measure your portions. Like maybe an amount the size of a baseball.

Mom: A baseball?

Weight Counselor: Yes, that would be about the most you should eat in one sitting.

Mom: That’s not enough to live on! That’s hardly anything.

Weight Counselor: Well, you can have a salad, or add vegetables.

Mom: Salad?! I don’t like salad. And why would you even have vegetables with spaghetti. That’s stupid.

The counselor argued valiantly – offered up nutrition facts and figures – but Mom was getting more and more steamed. Finally she stormed out of there, muttering about baseballs and vegetables. We tried Nutri-System, but she hated the food (I didn’t think it was so hot either). Thinking we could use exercise, she enrolled us in karate classes. We went to one class before she got into a heated argument with one of the instructors.

Mom: I thought the uniforms were free.

Instructor: It’s a free uniform or a week of free classes.

Mom: Well, why do they even need uniforms?

Instructor: It’s required, it’s part of the training.

Mom: That’s silly. He can just wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. The uniforms are expensive.

Instructor: Well, if you take the free classes you have to buy the uniforms. Or you could just pay the enrollment fee and get free uniforms.

Mom: This is a racket. You people are thieves!

She stormed out, and we never went back. Kind of a shame, really…I sort of liked it.

It wasn’t long before we were back into old habits – her weak efforts at getting us to eat right and be active gave way to piles of spaghetti and drive thru dinners. I don’t think I did this consciously, but watching her erratic behavior made me more cautious and steady. I hate risk. I hate not knowing. I hate abandoning things. I crave consistency at all costs – sometimes to my detriment. Change is a part of life, but it makes me incredibly nervous. Change calls to mind my mother bouncing madly from obsession to obsession, never accomplishing anything of value.

We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. Sometimes I’d forget a script at home, and we’d have to get it faxed to a rest stop en route to the audition. Sometimes we wouldn’t get a script that we were supposed to have gotten, and I’d walk into an audition cold. One time, we got a last minute call to audition for Les Mis on Broadway. I had auditioned when I was much younger, but the casting person took one look at me and turned me away.

Casting Lady: He can’t play a street urchin. He looks too intellectual.

I couldn’t argue. Mom was kind of pissed, though. Anyway, this audition happened to be for Tim. Since it was last minute, we had forgotten the sheet music he was going to audition with at home. He didn’t even really want to audition. He whined about it, but in the end Mom twisted his arm. He weighed the pros and cons of protesting versus being temporarily put out for a 5 minute audition. He chose the latter. I should point out that Tim was a regular kid by every standard – he went out and played in the dirt (something I never, ever did – I was never dirty). He caught frogs. He was loud. He jumped and ran up and down hallways when he took a notion to. He literally ran into the audition and jumped up and down and fidgeted during his interview. Somehow, they thought this was funny and he got the role. I’m not saying he wasn’t good – he was a great singer and actor, too. But the role required lots of energy and Tim had it in abundance.

Several days later, after it was confirmed that he indeed got the role, it became clear we’d have to move to New York. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but rent is insane in the city. Mom actually debated running back home daily between the shows. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but she actually sat down and did a cost analysis. Turned out it was cheaper to rent an apartment than schlep back and forth every day for 4 hours round trip.

Mom: I guess we’re moving to New York, guys.

And we did – but not without first packing copious amounts of hair gel.

There are a small handful of smells I miss. One is how department store toy aisles (and, in some cases, the department stores themselves) used to smell. I’m talking like, Woolworth’s and Jamesway or whatever. The low end type stores. My grandparents used to take me there, and it was a big deal. I’d hop in their big brown Chrysler and we’d go “into town” as Grandpa would call it. Anything that wasn’t “home” was “into town” – usually said with some manner of distaste, though the fact that I loved going out seemed to tickle him to death. I remember being 5 and skipping across the parking lot in my dinosaur shorts (and yes, they were just as awesome as you imagine they are) in hopes of getting some toy or something. I stopped wearing shorts as often after Grandpa died – to me, at least, summer was over after that. I stopped wearing them completely when I started to grow leg hair as a teenager – I truly didn’t understand what was going on with my body and was incredibly embarrassed. Without a guy around to explain it to me, and with a Mom who didn’t know very much about men’s biology, it remained a mystery to me until well into my 20’s. Anyway, that smell reminds me of that. Don’t go sniffing around department stores today for it, though – it doesn’t smell the same. I don’t know if it was because I was a kid and my olfactory senses are different now, or if they’ve started using different cleaner or something, but it’s not the same. I don’t know if I can even describe what I’m talking about, if you haven’t smelled it – it was a new plastic type smell, but it wasn’t cold and impersonal. It was sort of warm and happy. Happy Plastic, maybe? You’ll never see a Yankee Candle labelled as such, though it’d make me laugh my ass off if there was.

Another smell that I miss is the way video stores used to smell – back when they were video stores, I mean. Like…80’s, maybe early to mid 90’s. I remember walking with my Mom up and down the aisles, picking up the video tape sleeves that had Styrofoam blocks inside. I don’t know how to describe this smell either, except that it smelled like VHS tapes, Styrofoam and maybe popcorn. One would think that this smell went away with the big switch to DVD – and it did – but it faded  significantly when VHS tapes became less expensive (or video stores got too lazy) and just started stocking the shelves with the tapes themselves. So maybe what I was smelling was the Styrofoam after all. Hm.

The smell that brings back the most for me, though – the one that literally is like a kick in the head to me – is fax paper. I’m talking before they switched to plain paper – that doesn’t really have a smell – but the old, quasi shiny paper that used to come in a roll. I used to get scripts faxed all the time – in the days before we invested in a fax machine for the house, we’d go down the street to a stationary store and pick up the faxes there. Sometimes we’d actually go there and wait for the fax. Sometimes we’d have to run in, grab it, and take off, if the audition and fax came in the same day. I used to love how shiny the paper was – it was actually really sensitive. If I pressed my fingernails into it, it would leave little gray imprints in the paper. Not necessarily indentations, mind you, but marks. Hell…if I had wanted to (and often I did) I could write with something – say, a pin or a quarter – and make designs on the paper. I got faxes so much that I started anticipating the smell. To me, it smelled like opportunity and success. I remember being seriously disappointed when they switched paper types and it stopped smelling.

Anyway, one of the things the used to do with scripts and sides was go through it with a fat black Sharpie and X out entire parts. Sometimes this was because a scene was changed (or removed) – sometimes it was for clarity. In other words, they were telling you that your part started below the X, so don’t bother reading through the Sharpie. I always read the crossed out parts, though. Always. It provided insight into the characters, or enlightened you about what was going on in the script in terms of the big picture. Another thing about old faxes? They weren’t the clearest. Sometimes a word would come through blurry. Or not at all. So I’d have to sit there and pick through the script – guessing at which words were supposed to fill in the blanks. I got it right, too, more often than not – that’s something I was always pretty proud of myself for.

I also got really good at reading between the lines with life too. I got into the habit of never taking anything at face value. I could often tell something was wrong with people – sometimes even before they knew themselves – and picked and questioned and dug until they told me (or figured out that there was indeed something wrong). If someone said something as simple as “good morning”, it was full of nuance. I sifted through it, seeking to glean any nuggets of meaning. When they said “good morning” did they mean it was a good morning, or they wished it was a better morning? Or were they being sarcastic? In a lot of ways, I was my mother’s son. I wasn’t crazy or paranoid – I was just raised that way. It’s a habit (or a trait?) that cost me a lot of relationships and made me incredibly awkward socially (at least as a teenager). I think it made people around me nervous because I was nervous. My wondering if they were okay made them wonder if they were really okay. And it sort of created a spiral of self doubt and hysteria. Frankly, it probably didn’t have the greatest impact on Mom either.

I just realized that all my favorite smells – or at least a lot of them – are synthetic. Ask anyone what their favorite smell is – a freshly mowed lawn, flowers, rain. My favorite smells were all manufactured. I wonder what that says about me.

I got a call from an ad agency I did a lot of work with – no audition, no nothing, they just called me direct and asked me to do a commercial for them. When that happens, I always considered it a big honor – it was a huge acknowledgement of your talent and success for someone like a client or an ad agency to know you by name, let alone book you without an audition. It was a kind of hush hush thing…all I knew is that it was an ad for Coke. One of the ad agency guys came out and explained the spot to me.

Ad Agency Exec: So, the CEO of Coke is retiring. And we want to send him out with a new commercial, and acknowledge the new guy coming in. We’re re-doing a classic add – the one with Mean Joe Green – only with the outgoing CEO and the incoming CEO. You’ll play one of the CEOs.

Me: Sounds pretty cool.

Ad Agency Exec: So we’re going to dress you up like an old man, Danny.

I was about 10. I could immediately see how hilarious this ad was going to be.

If you haven’t seen the original Mean Joe Green commercial (in the re-do, I was the Coke CEO as the “kid”)- check it out here

Anyway, it was never aired or anything – it was just an internal thing within the Coke Co. as far as I know. I have a video of it somewhere amongst my things, but as of now I can’t put my hands on it. You’ll just have to use your imagination for this one, and take my word that it was pretty funny.

They went all out – they didn’t just dress me up in a suit and tie and all that, they actually sent me to a top FX artist to get a mask done. It was an interesting process – I had to lay down in a chair for a couple hours, perfectly still while they did a mold of my face. I don’t remember what exactly he used (I asked, I’m sure – I was always full of questions), but it looked like plaster and he used gauze. I felt a little claustrophobic initially – after all, you’re not even really allowed to move your face. Opening your eyes is out of the question as well – they’re laden with a heavy plaster of Paris-like substance. The FX guy told me that I was the most calm kid he’d ever worked on – invited me to come back in a few months for Halloween and he’d make me any mask I wanted. I thought that was pretty badass. In the end, 10 year old me ended up looking like a miniature version of a 60+ year old CEO – the mask perfectly fit my face (it was stuck there with some sort of skin sensitive glue). The only downside was that I couldn’t eat or drink anything while it was on (and it was on for quite a few hours). If the mask got ruined, that was pretty much it. I’m sure they had backups, but it would have been time consuming and expensive. I did not want to be the guy that cost the production an assload of money because he had to stuff his face with a cheese danish.

Throughout the process, Mom was practically giddy with excitement. At first I thought it was because I got called direct, and it was a huge feather in my cap. But, as usual when it came to what she was thinking, I was wrong. We got in the car, and Mom rubbed her hands together with excitement. My Grandfather used to do that, and it’s a habit I’ve picked up too. I’ve only ever seen her do it maybe a dozen times in my life, that’s how excited she was.

Mom: This is it! You’re in!

Me: Yeah, it’s pretty sweet, isn’t it?

Mom: I wonder if they’re going to call you again soon.

Me: Maybe. It’d be cool to get the Coke account.

She looked at me funny.

Mom: Yeah, that. But I meant with them. You’re in with them. don’t you get it?

And I did. It suddenly dawned on me – the mask, the “secretive” commercial – was this it? Was I really being invited to be “made” by the Mafia? Was everything Mom ever told me coming true?

Me: Yeah. I do get it.

Mom: This is how they do Russ. It’s all a mask, just like that. I was right! I knew it.

I didn’t have much to say – I was processing. I suddenly felt bad that I had ever doubted her – she was right, of course she was.

Mom: Now they’re going to sit down and talk to you – give you a new identity. They might need to arrange an accident or something. We might have to drop everything and go in the middle of the night, you never know. But you’re going to have to not make any mistakes. They’ll be watching us to see what we do.

She chattered away excitedly for the whole ride home – a good 2 and 1/2 hours. I had never seen her so perky and happy – and haven’t since. The one thing that upset me is that Mom told me not to call the FX guy and ask him for the promised Halloween mask. She said it might “complicate” things with the Mafia or be some sort of test. Although I was really disappointed, I abided by her decision. It would have been cool, though. She stopped at a payphone to call Russ with the good news. I admit to being somewhat curious, and staying within earshot so I could hear the conversation.

Mom: Russ!!! We did it!! It’s happening! The Answer is finally coming back as a YES! But you know all this, already, I’m sure. I’m sure they’ve told you by now. I can’t wait to see you soon, and we can talk all about it!

Looking back on this as an adult (and knowing that the Coke commercial was a coincidence that happened to play perfectly into Mom’s delusion) I know Russ knew exactly fuck-all about the commercial. It makes me chuckle a little bit to think of him listening to another long, rambling message (but this one very excited, because she had been mysteriously validated overnight). She must have seemed absolutely bonkers.

She even let Tim and I play in the arcade at the rest stop – a true rarity, and a sign of her supremely good mood. We played Ninja Turtles while she ran back over to the phone booths to make more calls – whether to my agent, or Russ, I didn’t know. It didn’t really matter to me because I was busy with Leonardo and the gang kicking Foot Soldier ass.

In the end, of course, none of us got new identities as famous people. No mysterious meeting was set up between us and the Mafia. I didn’t become famous or more successful with the help of a shadowy group of powerful men. Life just went on as it always did. As the months passed, Mom became more and more unsettled by this fact. I did too, but I didn’t tell her that. I started to wonder what all this meant. She began to worry openly about whether or not they changed their minds. Did we do or say something wrong? Was another person picked in my place? Did they not think we were good enough? Russ and I were peppered with such questions – and I knew exactly as much as he did. Long, rambling conversations ensued – none of them very positive. Late night chats where Mom wandered into my bedroom at 2 AM became more of a regular thing. She worried a lot. So did I.

I do find it somewhat amazing at how this played into her fantasies, but obviously special effects makeup and masks exist. So do surprise celebrations for outgoing CEOs. It bolstered my faith in my mother, at least until I got a little older. It covered up cracks that had started to show in her delusions and made it look a little more plausible. I know now that she would have taken almost anything and formed it to fit her world – and she would have done so with the same faith that others would tell you the earth is round or the sky is blue. To someone with her condition, everything means something and everything could mean anything. It is to be analyzed, refined, obsessed and wept  over. As Freud once famously said, though, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a mask is just a mask.

 

Whenever we were in New York (which was often – several times a week if not more) we would run up to my agent with flowers or candy or whatever and just kill some time chatting. Very rarely did they have any time to chat – or at least not much. Phones were ringing off the hook, and people were running back and forth to fax machines or meeting with clients. Because I booked a lot of stuff, I got a little more face time than the average Joe Schmoe, but it was still limited. We might sit in the office for half an hour to talk to our agent for 10 minutes while she scarfed down an egg salad sandwich. If they got too busy, we just excused ourselves and left. A lot of people might consider this a waste of time, but it was essential for staying on top of their minds and growing a working relationship. It is a fine line, though – you need to not be a pest. And yes, there were “those clients” who called constantly, dropped in unannounced on a regular basis, and just beat the bush to try to get some extra auditions. If you did it in the right way though, you could ask without asking, if you know what I mean.

One of the things a lot of actors freak out about is being type cast. Some people just are naturally type cast – if you look like a big, hulking goon, you’re probably going to go out for roles as a big, hulking goon. Someone with a more “average” look might be able to fit into several different roles, and these people had the most to worry about I think. If they booked a role where they played a serial killer, and they did it really really well – they might only ever get cast a serial killer. I know of some actors who did their jobs so well that casting people were only able to see them as that one, iconic role. They were never able to do anything else. It happens. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I referred to as “charactery”. In agent-speak, this meant that I had glasses and was bookish. I could be cast as a brainy prep school kid, or a boy genius, or a nerd that gets picked on, or…well. You get the idea. I wasn’t going out for roles as a surfer. I was one of those people who was typecast because that’s what they were. People always saw me with glasses and a book in my hand, and thought “Oh, that’s the smart kid. Let’s have him play the role of the kid who discovers a new chemical element.” I didn’t mind being seen as smart – in fact, I was secretly very proud of that – but as I got older, the feedback started to shift. I started trying out for more “normal” roles, and the feedback was basically this: He’s not credible as a “real” kid. He’s not a real boy.

I couldn’t disagree with them. I didn’t know how to play, at least in the sense that other kids did. In general, I didn’t know how to relate to other kids – at least the ones that weren’t actors. Actors, at least the ones I’ve ever run across, are usually pretty smart. With rare exception, I’ve never had problems connecting with them – maybe because we had at least acting in common. But put me in a room with “real” kids, and I had no idea what to do. They thought I was weird. I thought they were dumb. A typical conversation might go something like this.

Me: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

Kid: My what?

Me: You know, Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet and stuff.

Kid: We had to read it for school. It was alright I guess.

Me: Oh. Well, have you read any Micheal Crichton?

Kid: No, but my Mom read one of his books I think.

Me: Oh.

Kid: You skateboard?

Me: Not really.

Kid: Oh.

After my interactions with them, I’d feel odd and isolated – almost like an alien having just observed an entirely different race and culture. I couldn’t understand people who didn’t discuss politics, or books, or didn’t have intellectual curiosity beyond hanging out at 7-11. I’m not trying to bash normal people here. I’m just saying that as a kid – with little social skills and living in a bubble – I had little time or patience for them. I was a bit of an elitist in a lot of ways. So no, when a role demanded I “just be a kid” I was utterly lost. I’ve been 35 years old since I was 6.

One of the ladies that worked in the agency once pulled my mom aside.

Agent: You should have him play with real kids sometime.

Mom: Real kids?

Agent: Give him as normal a life as possible. He’s going to need to draw on that for his roles.

Whether Mom had taken this advice to heart or not (she didn’t, by the way), it simply wasn’t going to happen. Public school was out – mostly because I’d have to be pulled out of class on a regular basis. And where to find friends and connect with so called “normal” kids, let alone normal people Mom would trust? Even if I did, where would I find the time to hang out? Add Mom’s paranoid fantasies about Russ and the Mafia into the mix, and the chances of a normal life just slipped to zero.

Any success I had in film and TV work was basically because I played a brainy kid well. My role in a Babysitter’s Club episode was basically as a smart (but very smarmy) kid of dubious moral character who was running for class president. I auditioned for a lot of roles that I ultimately didn’t get – Jumanji, Newsies, The Good Son. I came this close to landing the role of Reggie in Richie Rich. Basically, they were looking for someone to really build the character of an aloof, slightly evil genius. Not that I was necessarily an evil genius (though I admit, I did admire some comic book villains), but it wasn’t a stretch to play someone who was aloof, intellectual, and un-relateable. I got to 3rd callbacks to play this role – everyone really seemed to like me, from the director on down. We even got a call directly from L.A., asking us to send them some candid shots. I didn’t really do anything candid – I was far too tightly wound for that – but in this case it probably worked in my favor and made me seem more like the character. In the end, the role I was auditioning for was cut down from being the major villain in the movie to almost nothing, and they ended up going a completely different way with the character. The kid that booked it had frizzy red hair and wore bow ties – he was actually a friend of mine, and I was really glad to hear he booked it.

It followed me all throughout my life, at least until fairly recently (again, therapy – it helps) – that feeling of being separate, of not being “normal”. Ironically, in my teenage years I would have given anything to be “normal” – to go to the mall or school or movies. To have friends to hang out with all the time. To be not a real boy meant being out of place nearly all the time, except in a very limited set of circumstances. It took me a long time to realize that even if I could relate to so-called normal kids, I would never actually be normal. They would always look at me as an oddity – maybe because I was jumpy and twitchy (I could be assassinated at any moment, after all), maybe because my mother was eccentric, or because I used big words and talked about books. Or because I was “famous” – I insisted to them that I wasn’t, that it was all just a job but they didn’t understand. I told them I was just like them, but they didn’t believe it. I can’t exactly blame them – neither did I. I couldn’t even begin to act like one of them for a 2 minute audition. So I sighed, shook my head, and went back to reading. And when the calls came in for the nerdy kid, for the socially awkward brainiac, I gladly took them. I knew what they were asking for, and it was a part I could play.

Hustle

Posted: April 26, 2013 in Acting, Life, Mom, Music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One word that comes to mind when I think of those days is hustle.  We hustled a lot. Not just back and forth to auditions and lessons, but we had hustle. I mean…I was pitching demos left and right to anyone that would listen. When I started writing and recording on a regular basis, we’d basically give out the demos to our industry contacts and friends. I mean, if I was meeting you and I shook your hand, I would pass you a demo tape. Most didn’t get listened to, I’m sure – as Grandma might have said, they no doubt wound up in File 13 – her word for the office trash can. Some probably listened out of curiosity. I was a savant, a boy wonder (or whatever…pick your word) and they wanted to see exactly how good a 10 year old kid could write. I enjoyed the attention – almost all of it was supportive and positive – but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder if they were listening because it was good or because I was a novelty. I thought it was probably the latter, and that depressed me. Listening back to my old stuff now is a cringe inducing experience. I imagine it is for most writers. Some, like myself, are bound to have a book or a room or a case where they put all their bastard children (artistically speaking, of course). If they’re anything like me, visits are difficult and rare. Songs I thought were great when I was 8 or 10 I listen to at 30 and cannot believe I wrote such a tremendous mound of dung, let alone peddled the demo tapes to everyone who would listen. They were good for my age, but I realized very quickly that in order to not just be a novelty, I had to be as good or better than the adults who were writing (and who already had dozens of years more experience than I did). I saw this, and worked harder. I put my nose to the grindstone until it was bloody and raw. I don’t like my old work, with only one or two exceptions, but I’m proud of it because it allowed me to cut my teeth and develop as an artist. Someone once said that 90% of the stuff you will write is useless junk, if you’re lucky. The other 10% is hopefully worth something.

Anyway, I used to do a lot of jingles – don’t know if I mentioned that before. It’s an industry that is all but dead now, but in the early 90’s it was still booming. We would get calls (sometimes from jingle houses, sometimes from agents), I’d run in with maybe 3 or 4 other people, we’d harmonize a few times and crank out something great. I’ll see if I can’t find a few jingles that I did and link them at the bottom of the post.

Somewhere along the line, I got the idea (or Mom got the idea) that I ought to write jingles. I hit every jingle house I knew with demos, and most of the ad agencies too. In retrospect, they were never going to hire a kid to do anything like that – it was too much of a gamble – but we didn’t know that. What Mom also didn’t know – or at least didn’t put together properly in her head – was that giving demo tapes to the jingle houses created a conflict of interest for them. Let me explain. Most of the people who worked at the jingle houses were writers and musicians – hired by an ad agency or other client to write, play on, and produce a jingle. Giving them a demo of some songs was in and of itself not a bad idea, but giving them a demo and asking if they were interested in having me write jingles was in poor taste. It would be like walking into a store, handing your resume to the manager, and trying to apply for his job. Rather futile, somewhat offensive, and mostly dumb. But since we didn’t know what we were doing, at least in regards to the music business, we ran around acting like a couple of rubes. Everyone was very gracious in accepting the demos – I never heard anyone say a bad word about it. But in the end, I don’t think they knew what to do with it, even if they wanted to help. I did, somehow, come into contact with a very nice guy who ran a major ad agency. I had done some work for him in the past, and had handed him my demo. Not only did he very graciously listen, but wrote a letter to tell me how much he enjoyed it, and how he would gladly consider me as a candidate if I wanted to apply for a position there in the future. The guy was a giant in the industry – he coined the phrase “It’s everywhere you want to be” for Visa, for instance – there was no reason for him to take the time to listen to some kid’s tape. But he did, and I still have the letter.

A friend in the business told me once “If you were sitting in a theater, and somebody like Madonna was sitting behind you, you’d reach under your seat and hand her a demo tape.” He was joking (kind of) but he wasn’t wrong. I would have. And if I didn’t think of it on my own, Mom would have insisted I do it. I remember sitting in a diner once in rural Pennsylvania, and Mom and I overheard a conversation at the next table. The guy had worked for Pepsi or something, and somehow Mom got the impression he was important. So she sent me over to ask him what he did for Pepsi. This was very rude,  since it would have been obvious we were eavesdropping, but it was also tactless. You just don’t do that sort of thing, you know? Anyway, I did as I was bid and found out the guy was a truck driver for Pepsi. We had a polite (but very confused, at least on his part) chat. He seemed to have no idea why I was explaining that I was a songwriter. I sat back down in the booth, and related our conversation to Mom.

Mom: So he wasn’t important?

Me: I guess not. He drove truck for Pepsi, he wasn’t like, in an ad agency or anything.

Mom: Oh.

I went back to my food.

Mom: Well, hand him a demo tape anyway. He could know somebody.

And, once again, I got up from the table and trotted over to where the poor bewildered soul sat. He thanked me for the demo tape, handed it to his wife who put it in her purse, and smiled at me oddly. He probably thought I was the strangest freaking kid he’d ever run into. And he was probably right.

When I look back on these times, I do feel embarrassed. True, we didn’t know any better, but we could have had a little more tact. Somehow, I blame myself the most, even though I really was just doing what I was told. Mom supposedly knew best, in most if not all cases. In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve learned that if you’re nice to people – really genuine – they want to help you. I’m not saying I wasn’t genuine, but basically walking around asking people to listen to my demo all the time wasn’t ideal. It didn’t make them want to listen. I was some snot-nosed brat off the street, flinging tapes around like a mad man. I didn’t care about them personally, just what they could do for me. Granted, that attitude was learned behavior, but it is a very sorry attitude. I’m embarrassed to have ever had it.

At the same time, although we wanted people to listen, we didn’t know what to do when offers of help came. We didn’t want to seem overeager or rude (ha ha) by asking for help directly, so Mom’s plan was to simply ask for guidance and advice, rather than direct help. Once, we had a meeting with a fairly famous songwriter.

Songwriter: Okay. So what do you need me to do? How can I help?

Mom and I looked at him blankly.

Mom: I guess…just…offer advice.

And he graciously did. But Mom’s plan of asking for “advice” and hoping to get actual help failed 100% of the time. We simply didn’t know how to be direct when the chips were down. Quite literally, we flopped around like a dying fish – hoping that merely by moving and acting the desired outcome would materialize.

Nowadays, I have the opposite problem – probably because of how I feel about all that stuff. I hesitate to give people a demo, and frankly feel a little chagrined about it when I do. I take very specific opportunities, but they’re ones that I ponder carefully and execute with precision. I no longer crassly walk around asking people to listen to my music, or force demo tapes on them. Mom shakes her head at me these days and tells me I don’t have the drive, that I don’t have hustle. And she’s right – at least, by her definition, I don’t. I learned from carelessness, and it has made me careful. But sometimes I miss the frenetic energy, the constant buzz of doing, and I wonder if there isn’t something to it after all.

 

Kool-Aid, Pink Swimmingo

Sprinkle Spangles