2007 was sort of a nutty year. I had just finished a fantastic stint on a TV show playing a crazy, but very entertaining character when, out-of-the-blue one of my siblings was diagnosed with a nasty case of colon cancer. Given the hereditary factors associated with that disease, my doctor deemed it a good idea for me to have my first-ever colonoscopy. For those of you who’ve never had a colonoscopy, it’s an approximately thirty-minute procedure where a doctor inserts a camera into your anus and takes a good long look at your rectum, bowl and lower intestine. Because I know myself rather well, I opted to pay an extra $250.00 to be anesthetized during the procedure. I wasn’t particularly worried about the discomfort factor. I just didn’t like the idea of having to make small talk while someone had a camera up my ass. I don't know about you, but there are certain moments in life I like to pretend never happened. When I woke up, the gastoentologist who had performed the procedure was hovering over me, gently calling my name in a warm, fatherly tone of voice. He asked me how I felt and I groggily replied "fine." Then, leaning in every so slightly, he smiled and whispered in confidential sort of way, “Did I happen to mention that I’m a big ‘Boston Legal’ fan?”
I can still remember the first time I wanted to be famous. I was about nine years old at the time. I had by then become sort of an indoor kid, constantly glued to the family’s TV set. One night when my parents were distracted, I managed to stay up late enough to watch “The Carol Burnett Show.” I loved it, and soon it became a weekly ritual. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be a guest on that show. When I stupidly confessed this dream out loud one night, my sister (who always took a certain joy in bursting bubbles) pointed out that Carol Burnett would never give a yahoo like me the time of day. Only famous people got to be on her show. Side note: I actually met Carol Burnett at an industry event last year and decided to test that theory. I asked her for the time and she told me she was sorry, but she didn’t know. So I guess my sister was right.
When I started acting in high school plays, I discovered that minor fame had some benefits. Used cleverly, it could shield you from bullies and occasionally win you a party invitation. I, who was no damn good at any other aspect of high school life, could at least avoid harassment by playing court jester. After graduation, I enrolled in a college that promised the students a chance to work intimately with “well-known theatre artists.” These “theatre artists” turned out to be mostly aging, alcoholic TV stars down on their luck and in need of a job. Here I got to see the tail end of fame up close and it wasn’t pretty. However, the experience awakened a certain ambition in me. If these drunken, lecherous losers could become famous, surely I could.
By age twenty-one, I was a “serious” young actor determined to make my mark in the competitive world of New York theatre. Here fame was hard-earned and only awarded to those with real skill and talent. I desperately wanted to be one of those classy East Coast actors whose careers straddled both Hollywood and Broadway. To me, fame now equaled status. All I needed was one rave review in the New York Times and I’d soon be hosting classy dinner parties at my sprawling Connecticut estate. My guests (Kate Hepburn, Bobby Deniro, Meryl and of course, the Newman's) would all join me in telling witty stories about how awful and tacky Los Angeles was. Although I eventually did get to see my name in the New York Times, the closest I ever got to the Newman’s was catering a party at their house.
By the time I came to L.A. to pursue a writing career, I was seeking a totally different kind of fame. I now only wanted to be famous within the industry. Maybe I wasn’t sexy or good-looking enough to be a big-deal actor, but goddamn it, I was funny! I might have given up on seeing my name in “People,” but I was determined to see it in “Variety.” I reasoned that (unlike acting) it would be easy to claw my way to the top of the writing profession, eventually landing in the coveted director’s chair. Fame was power. If I could just get a little of it, I’d soon be clutching an armload of Oscars. Eventually, this would lead to a “tribute” evening at AFI or USC where geeky film students would ask me thoughtful questions about my career and I would charm the shit out of everybody with my grace and modesty. A guy can dream, right?
A couple of years ago, something occurred to me: I’m never going to be famous. At least not in that “major artist” kind of way. I’ll have my moments here and there (like occasional recognition from medical personnel) but I’m not going to win an Oscar or sit in a box at the Kennedy Center Honors. The reason is simple. People rarely get famous after forty. Sometimes it happens (Morgan Freeman being the best example) but the odds are largely against it. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like the industry has ignored me. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’ve seen most of my wildest dreams come true. When I was younger, I was so driven and focused and insufferably determined to be somebody. I wish I had realized at the time that I already was somebody and that fame, when you boil it down, is just a light someone shines on you. It can only illuminate who you already are and can often blind you to what ultimately matters. Had I known that twenty years ago, I might have taken things a little easier and hit fewer walls.
The revelation that Godot is not coming has been strangely freeing. The last two years have been, hands down, the most fun and artistically satisfying of my whole career. The decision to stop steering the boat has paid some glorious dividends in both the writing and the acting camps. It's odd to realize that my fantasies gave me a life and now life is giving me back those fantasies. As my hero, Mark Twain once said, “Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.” Maybe not the cheeriest way of putting it, but I don’t disagree. A long time ago, I was lucky enough to be let into a club that celebrates dreaming and dreamers and I’ll glady perform in their talent show as long as they’ll have me.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being fantastically middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv