Friday, September 2, 2016


This stroll down memory lane may be droll, but it is not fantasy. All that I write here is, in fact, mostly true, the whole-ish truth, and very little but the truth.

IMDb. The Internet Movie Database. Search it, and you will not find me. At least, not yet. But not for want of trying on my part. In time, IMDb may catch up with me.

My other career, you see – tho I speak of it little – is as an actor, a thespian, a player, if you will, in the classic sense. Or, it was. I have trod the boards. I have brought down the house. And when the time came, Mr. DeMille, I was ready for my close-up.

Like many thespians, my beginnings were in the theatuh, mine being the rare case, however, in which I was not hampered by formal instruction in the discipline. Thrice have I broken a leg, nay, four or five times, yet while cameras were not unknown in that era, I now have no photos to document these older productions. Perhaps as a result of this essay, some will come forward. I’d like that. And while, as I recount my earliest work, you may say, “school plays,” there are those who think of them as the work of a prodigy. And when I say, “those,” yes, I mean me.

In third grade, at Lincoln Street Elementary School, I debuted in the role of a Chinese magistrate, in what I must admit was a forgettable play, since in fact I have all but forgotten it. My soliloquy lives on, perhaps, in the memories of my fellow students, were any of them eidetics. I had the lead, an auspicious start to a decade-long career, but all I really recall is that Mom made my costume, adding to her already illustrious résumé both costume designer and costume maker. It was a long, flowing green thing, reaching to my ankles and graced with red and black trim at my sleeves and collar. On front and back she traced some kind of elaborate geometric design in wide, black, permanent marker. The gown flowed generously around me, like a warm summer’s evening, which was good, since I wore it well into high school as a Halloween costume, by which time it dipped only to my knees and fit somewhat more snugly around the middle. Fortunately, my Fu Manchu mustache was applied with some kind of mascara, instead of a Sharpie.

My debut in a musical came in fifth grade. Some might have called it a choir concert, but it was television-themed, I wore a costume, and I had a solo. In truth, the solo was more of a trio, but more is always better in show biz. Still, I did get to sing on my own for a verse, if humbly from a trash can. The show was a Sesame Street pastiche, and I was one of three boys bedecked in old green carpet singing that eternal hit, “I Love Trash.” And yes, we were all in trash cans. The director was a purist. As it happens, the other two Oscars were tall and lithe, and when the curtain descended they easily popped up and emerged from their props. I on the other hand must have had the smallest of the three receptacles, since I had to wobble back and forth until I fell over and could crawl my way out. I refuse to think that the reluctance of the other singers, and even the parents, to assist me at this time of need might have been due to a certain amusement they derived from my predicament.

In sixth grade, at Bidwell Middle School, the footlights called again. This time I played the hero, one Hercules, by name. There might have been taller boys in class, but none apparently who were willing to memorize lines, and in any case, I had experience. I donned a yellow tank top and rigged my wristwatch's wide, tooled, leather wrist band – which really was quite the thing in those days and hardly as hideous as it might sound now – into a MacGyverish arm band, long before that character was ascendant, I might add. Sadly, my herculean work failed to impress the girls, but I observe that we were very young, and they were probably just shy.

One of my teachers in eighth grade had some of his students make their own movie. I was particularly attracted to this and was more involved than the others. I helped write the script, acted in the role of a news anchor, and even directed some scenes. The old 8mm camera could not capture sound, so I ended up recording a voice-over in post-production. You can imagine my anticipation before viewing the movie at year’s end, but you might also imagine my horror when I attended a second showing of the movie a year later, after my voice had changed.

I pursued other interests mostly in high school. Took a hiatus, if you will, from acting. But, when I was a senior at Red Bluff Union High School, a production was scheduled of Neil Simon’s comedic masterwork, “Barefoot in the Park.” Now, Neil envisioned the character of Mr. Munshin as not requiring an actual actor. In the script, he is only spoken of, and spoken to, by the leads as an imaginary being out of sight of the audience. In one scene, the female lead directs some lovey-dovey words to a man in the apartment hallway, who she thinks is her husband, only to find that the man is instead Mr. Munshin, an upstairs neighbor. Ah, the stuff of comedy. Some of my actor friends thought it would be funnier if at this point Mr. Munshin, in person, were to peer – perhaps even leer – hopefully through the open apartment door before the mistake is found out. My talents were sought, and with some assistance from costuming in the form of a raincoat, my silent, walk-on response to the line, “Hey, lover, start puckering your lips,” brought down the house. Both nights, if I’m honest.

Little more than a year later, I graduated from creating a role to playing a real person. Danny Day-Lewis had his Lincoln, George Scott had his Patton, and I had my Elvis. I know it’s an unusual choice, and my portrayal was limited to a single evening, but I counted it a great responsibility. My time was not lengthy on the temporary Occidental College dorm lounge stage, but playing a real person requires finesse and sensitivity, and in my case, it also required a wig, black mascara, an entirely white costume, and a large, sequined, cardboard and tin foil belt buckle. In true collegiate fashion, our spectacle – for that it surely was, as anyone who attended the 1981 Chilcott-Orr Fall Talent Show will attest – compared and contrasted “Young Elvis” – my  colleague dancing wildly to “Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” – with what they affectionately termed, “Old Elvis.” While I lip-synched to “Love Me Tender,” having just had my face sprinkled with droplets of water before entering the spotlight, three co-eds rushed the stage, screaming in delight and drying my face with their handkerchiefs. This was encouraging, but alas, they were but ringers, engaged in advance to heighten the drama.

Though I focused on other arts at Occidental, my acting nevertheless expanded into television and movie roles. In the spring of 1980, shooting began on the pilot episode of Steve Cannell’s crime-fighting comedy, “Ten Speed and Brown Shoe.” The big ending was shot on a hot, sunny day in Long Beach’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, and a marching band was required. Some Hollywood casting genius approached Occidental College, which hadn’t had a marching band in any living person’s memory, to supply one. We obliged, and the word was spread, but when the motor coach was ready to transport us on a very early Saturday morning to the location shoot, the number of true bandsmen was insufficient for even a small marching band. Emissaries were sent to the freshman dorm to roust several bleary-eyed wannabe sideliners, before they could fully comprehend what was being asked of them, and when the need for a Drum Major was identified, and a mace put in my hands, who was I to decline? I shared the field with the show’s stars, Ben Vereen and Jeff Goldblum, and our efforts succeeded. The show was picked up, as they say in the business, for an entire season. I suppose you could say ours was a singular success. I have just learned the show is now available on DVD, with the exception of the pilot. Something about rights and lawyers and money. It's more common in Hollywood than you might think. Fortunately, I viewed the episode when it originally aired, but editors deemed the marching band’s dramatic contributions to be less interesting than the car chase, and so our screen time is so brief that if you blinked, you would miss the entire band, which only appears in a shot so long that even the Drum Major, my only TV role to date, can hardly be detected. In a related aside, I have all my life been able to wiggle my ears, which is entertaining, but hardly original. However, I can also wiggle either ear independently, and for many years I was aware of no one else who could do this. But then, Jeff Goldblum did it one night on the Letterman Show, and now we are two. If I encounter Jeff some day again on set, I shall bend his ear on the subject.

And finally, motion pictures. Talkies. The Big Screen. It was 1981, fast on the heels of my TV debut, when Hollywood came a’calling. The picture was “Choices,” based on the true story of a handsome, high school senior with outstanding talents in both football and violin, but who also has significant hearing loss. Some of his friends are good people, some are not, and family dynamics pressure him to weigh his love of sports with his abilities in music. He has to make some important, uh, choices. I’ll admit, it’s not an A-movie, and it might not even be a B-movie, but surely there is some letter of the alphabet with which it may be graded. In an ironic acting stretch, I play an orchestral trumpeter. I have no lines, it’s true, and the music you hear was recorded later by a studio orchestra, but there’s no such thing as a small role, only small actors. Note the way I look up, when called. Observe how I look down when castigated. Acting, you see, is all in the eyes. By some miracle, the picture has been released on DVD, and you, too, can own a copy for a small investment. Very small. In my scene (31 minutes in, for anyone who wants to know), the kid plays assistant concert-master in a youth orchestra that his grandfather conducts. They are rehearsing Handel’s Royal Fireworks, and the trumpets tick off Grandpappy by making mistakes. This, of course, is not completely unknown in the real world, but in the movie, the kid gets so annoyed at the conductor’s behavior that he jumps up and leaves the orchestra in furious disgust. Now, I know just a little about orchestras, and never, ever – not since the first Tyrannosaurus Rex led the very first dinosorchestra – has a string player EVER left a rehearsal in anger over a conductor’s treatment of brass players. You can wish, you can dream, but that ain’t never happened, and it ain’t never gonna happen in real life, such are the social bonds between the sections of an orchestra. Anyway, another genius Hollywood casting director secured the services of the Peter Meremblum Youth Orchestra, of which I was a member at the time, and we scooted off early one Saturday en masse on bus to Simi Valley High School, which interestingly portrayed itself in this picture. However, the orchestra’s use of the word “Youth” was somewhat malleable, and a problem quickly arose. The script called for the horns to be the clammy culprits, which is not really a dramatic stretch, but one of our horn players that day was decidedly bald and not at all convincing in the role of a high schooler. So, they switched out the cue ball for us trumpets, and consequently, I’m in a few wide shots of the orchestra, and yes, I have a 2- or 3-second close-up. On a side note, the female lead was also in my scene, and it was apparently her birthday, since there was a cake for her after we wrapped for the day. Her name? Demi Moore. It was her film debut, too.

I haven’t acted in quite some time, but IMDb will probably read this and add me to their site soon. And I haven’t given up, either. I’m thinking of writing a little. And directing, of course. Isn’t that what every true actor wants?

1 comment:

  1. Ever grateful for the real story of the Oxy Wind Ensenble film debut! MT