When I first came to New York to study acting, I got a job answering phones and running errands for a real estate company that sold residential property in Manhattan. It was a good gig that lasted (off and on) for over five years and allowed me to support myself between acting jobs. The experience taught me that real estate was (in one respect) very similar to show business: Any idiot could become a huge success if they happened to be standing in the right place in the right time.
The entertainment industry is mostly populated by talented, sane and hardworking people. But there are certainly moments when you have to wonder who left the door open; letting all these nut-jobs and morons into the clubhouse. I’m not talking about the jolly eccentrics; the quirky artists who get on your nerves, but ultimately deliver when the chips are down. I’m referring to those nightmarish, horrible people who gum up the works, overturn the boat, hog all the oxygen and stink up the joint. Sadly, I can think of several such people without even trying very hard. Sometimes these individuals can amazingly float along for years based on one lucky break. Other times their insanity (or incompetence) is the key to their success, since they use it to wear down the opposition. As any of us who have ever been forced to work with one of these folks can attest, things can quickly go from “difficult” to surreal.
Early in my career, I did a play with a “celebrity” whose only claim to fame was her role in an infamous sex scandal that brought down a popular congressman. Despite having no acting experience whatsoever, she got herself into a prestigious class taught by a very famous (and very elderly) acting teacher who christened her an undiscovered genius. Buoyed by this endorsement, she then snagged herself a wealthy boyfriend and somehow conned him into financing her off-Broadway debut. I joined the production about a week before it opened, replacing an actor who had wisely chosen to bail. By this point, the play had notoriously gone through three directors and several cast changes mostly due to the coarse and violent behavior of our star who could easily have been mistaken for one of the hookers working on nearby 10th Avenue. The show (which was a horrible train wreck) mercifully closed after about two performances, but it was a strange experience to share the stage each night with a woman who appeared to be (how can I put this delicately?)…a crazy whore. Had she been a nice whore or a pathetic whore, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But she was a mean whore who called people “cocksuckers” to their face. When the show closed, she and her boyfriend disappeared into the night (with our paychecks) and were never heard from again.
One of the deadliest combinations is ego and stupidity. I once did an episode of a show with an “up-and-coming” actor who had strangely decided that television work was now beneath him. From the second he arrived on set, nothing met with his approval. Soon, it began to dawn on everyone that the actor’s problems didn’t really lie with the “weak” script, “second rate” co-stars or “lame” director. The real problem was that the actor was incredibly stupid. The guy looked and sounded good on camera, but off-camera he was something of a dolt. Although rumors of firing his dumb ass circled around the set, his antics had put the episode so far behind schedule there was no choice but to try to soldier on. It never got any better. On the last day of shooting, he waited until we were all standing on the set (in full make-up and costume), before announcing that he found the scene offensive (on moral grounds!) and was unwilling to perform it. Sensing that this fresh bullshit might keep us here all night, I piped up, saying I totally understood his dilemma and had a great idea about how to solve it. Amazingly, the director and producer stood by as I assigned a watered-down version of his “offensive lines” to another actor. My version didn’t make much sense, but the producer instantly approved it, the director shot it and the episode went on the air (with my rewrite intact) three weeks later. The actor continued to work, but “up and coming” he was not.
Sometimes, talented people become psychos when they are out of their element. Drowning in self-doubt, they can begin to think of themselves as a castle under siege. Suddenly, you are either “with them” or “against them” (with no middle ground). A few years ago, a friend of mine was cast in a sit-com that featured a well-known stand-up comic in the lead. When I asked her how things were were going, she sighed and said it was a basically an easy gig. She explained that each week the show started out with a fairly normal script; one that included a serviceable plot plus lots of jokes that were spread out evenly among the characters. But gradually during the course of rehearsals, the star would whine and scream and weep and threaten everyone until all the funny lines were eventually handed over. By the end of each week, my friend’s contribution to the show basically amounted to sitting on the sofa and saying some version of: “You’re kidding! So, then what happened?”
On the writing side, I’ve certainly encountered a few lunatics and dim bulbs as well. More than once, I’ve been in note sessions that seemed like “Twilight Zone” episodes (my favorite of these was when the director showed up for our meeting shit-faced drunk). Then there are occasionally people who leave you wondering how exactly they got their job in the first place. I can remember being sent to meet a woman a few years ago who was sort of the Sarah Palin of development executives. Pretty and well put-together, she seemed strangely clueless about the industry and had an odd tendency to start sentences she didn’t know how to finish. I can still remember her glassy expression as she assured me I could expect a bright future in Hollywood because (as she put it) my strengths were “just…so strong.”
Believe me when I tell you, I have my nutty days as well. This is a stressful business. I’d be the first to admit that the pressure to be the hippest, smartest, fastest, most-talented artist on two legs can be a bit much. If you’re not nuts coming in the door, you probably will be soon. And in the end, a little craziness might even be a good thing. Like the old saying goes: “Show business is like the insane asylum. Anyone can apply but only the truly insane are admitted.”
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being delightfully middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv