I recently had lunch with my new acting agent. It was our first real “get-to-know-you” lunch and I’m happy to report that it went well. In addition to being smart and ambitious, he’s a soulful, literate guy who works hard for his clients while also making a little time to volunteer for a couple of charities he believes in. One of the things I liked best about him was that he really seemed to “get” what it means to be an artist. You’d be surprised how rare that is. God knows that everybody’s relationship with their agent is different. Over the years, I’ve had a myriad of experiences.
My first agents were these two lovely middle-aged Jewish ladies named Marilyn and Diane who commuted in from the suburbs each day on a mission to get their clients work in the glamorous world of New York Theatre. They had a modest little office on the corner of West 57th Street and 8th Avenue and tended to represent a lot of young, hopefuls like me. Once in a while, I would swing by unannounced with a box of Fanny Farmer chocolates from the pharmacy downstairs and they would act like I’d brought them diamonds from Tiffany’s. I’m not sure how effective they were as agents, but they loved their clients with a passion. Anytime I needed an ego boost, all I had to do was stick my head in the door. According to Marilyn and Diane, I was the cutest, most talented, funniest, most likable young man in all of New York. How did I stay so skinny? And look at that smile! And my hair! Did I know how many women would kill to have hair my particular shade of blond? I never got much work from Marilyn and Diane, but I always left their office feeling like a million bucks. When they finally closed their doors, I moved to another joint staffed by younger agents, all of whom were addicted to cocaine (it was the 80’s). They definitely produced a lot of appointments. But, in addition to using coke, they also sold it, so I lived in fear that someday the place would be raided by the cops.
Eventually, one of the cokeheads migrated to L.A. When I called to congratulate him on the move, he offered to represent me if I wanted to come out for pilot season. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, he’d sobered up and had no memory of that conversation. I was screwed. I’d already sublet my apartment in New York and now found myself standing on Mars with no escape pod. Frantically, I sent out photos to a zillion L.A. agents that I knew nothing about. Finally, I got a call from a nice-sounding lady who asked me to stop by the following day. When I arrived, I discovered that she worked out of her home - her living room to be exact. “Ginny” met me at the front door, wearing a bright red track suit. She invited me into her extremely messy living room and told me to have a seat. I moved a stack of 8 x 10’ s off the nearest chair and sat down. During our chat, Ginny (who was about 60 and a chain-smoker) told me that she’d recently gotten four of her clients jobs as “crew members” in a submarine movie that was currently shooting. In time, her husband, “Jimmy” (also dressed in a track suit) wandered in from the kitchen carrying a glass of tomato juice. Tossing a stack of manila envelopes out of the recliner, Jimmy sat down and joined the conversation. According to Jimmy, business had been “shit” last year, but things were definitely looking up. After about a half-hour, I made up a lie about having another appointment and ducked out. I stayed in L.A. for three more months (agent-less) until I finally gave up and retreated to New York.
Two years later, I was back. A play I’d co-written was being done here and I was quickly discovering that producing theater in Hollywood was a very different beast. Despite the fact that this was only a 99-seat, showcase production, the producers were obsessed with getting a “name” actress for one of the plum character roles. Since there was no money involved, all we had to offer was a solid funny part that the actress could use to attract a little industry attention. In other words, we had to find a slightly famous, older actress who’d hadn’t worked in a while. Even then, it was hard to get past their agents. Finally, I was dispatched by the producers to hand-deliver a copy of the script to an agent who was known for representing stars from yesteryear. She too worked out of her house, but hers was in the Hollywood Hills. I rang the bell, but got no response. After a moment, I rang again. “Hello?” a frail voice answered. I was instantly alarmed. The voice (vaguely female) sounded like it was 150 years old. I indentified myself as the playwright who was dropping off a script for her client. I waited. “Hello,” the little voice croaked again. Not only was this woman 150, she was clearly deaf. I started over, now yelling my whole explanation through her front door; careful to slowly enunciate each word. Again, no response. Impatiently, I rang the bell again. Suddenly, I heard a scary sound. It was like a moan or the kind of exhalation you make when experiencing a sharp pain. Panic swept over me as I pictured this poor elderly agent lying semiconscious in the hallway with a broken hip. I knocked urgently on her door. “Excuse me!” I called. “Are you alright?” Then I heard a distinct, unmistakable squawk. The agent was not home. I had been talking to her parrot.
Eventually, I settled into L.A. and began to find my way as a writer. Over time, I’ve had the good fortune to be represented by some very large and powerful agencies. I wish I could say something wise and pithy about my experience playing with the big boys, but truthfully, it wasn’t all that much different from my experience with mid-level agencies. Agents are not our fairy godparents – although there are times when I think they would truly like to be. Agents are not Santa or the Tooth Fairy either. They are salespeople trying to sell a mysterious commodity called talent. And talent is a living, breathing, ever-changing, sometimes crazy-making thing. As salespeople, the industry expects agents to be in touch with the latest trends (even the crappy stupid ones) and to not waste anybody’s time trying to move merchandise that’s not currently in style. And agents need product that (even if it’s not new) at least looks new. The greatest quality an agent can possess is tenacity.
After the parrot episode, I called the agent (who had not been home) to check on her client’s availability. Unfortunately, the actress we were interested in had just been offered a dinner theater show in Florida, but the agent had a couple of other clients she could suggest. Quickly, she began to rip through her list of older ladies – several of whom I was surprised to hear were still alive. None of them sounded right, so I politely declined. Then as if she were playing her trump card, the agent triumphantly announced, “I can get you Rhonda Fleming.” I only had a vague memory of Rhonda Fleming as a glamorous, red-haired bombshell from the 40’s. Not exactly the gal to play a repressed, Born-Again, Southern battle ax. But I couldn’t help but admire her agent’s chutzpah. It made me hope that someday (even if it’s a hundred-to-one shot), some intrepid rep will be willing to say “I can get you David Dean Bottrell.” Pause. “Yes, he’s still alive.”
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being wonderfully middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv