Last Friday, my old friend Karen flew in all the way from Texas to take in a performance of the play I’ve been doing. It was a quick trip that unfortunately only gave us enough time to squeeze in a quick dinner before the show. Karen and I originally met when I was a naive and optimistic 19 year-old dreaming of a career as an actor. She was doing props for a show I was acting in at a community theatre and we hit it off instantly; mostly due our shared sick and somewhat ruthless sense of humor. After I moved away from Austin, we lost touch for over twenty years until, right in the middle of my stint on “Boston Legal,” I got an email with the words “Remember me?” in the subject line. As it turned out, Karen’s work brought her to California occasionally and for the last three years, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing her once or twice a year for dinner.
As we sat in the California Pizza Kitchen, laughing and catching up, two things struck me. The first was that Karen was probably the one who should have gone into show business, since she is without a doubt the funniest person I’ve ever met. She would have made an incredible stand-up or at the very least, a top drawer sit-com writer. The second thing that occurred to me is that had I not, at one time, been a stage-struck kid, I would have probably never met her. It left me thinking about how show business has brought me a lot of prizes, but the best of them has been some truly remarkable friendships.
I’m sure that people in the dry cleaning or plumbing industries also have great friendships, but I have a feeling that they probably differ a bit from the kind we show folk share. For one thing, we in the entertainment business are all, to some degree, a little nuts. My current drycleaner (a lovely Korean lady named “Sunny”) seems extremely stable and when my townhouse needed all its original 1919 pipes ripped out a couple of years ago, the plumbers didn’t have any artistic differences over how to get the job done. The community of the people I live and work with are not dangerously crazy, but we can certainly be impulsive, excitable and a bit moody.
Deciding to do make your living creatively is a risky proposition and those who make that choice have to sweep certain realities under the rug. Big grown-up life decisions are sometimes postponed for decades. Being at least a little odd is almost a job requirement. As the acting teacher Michael Shurtleff once said, “Show business is like the insane asylum. Anyone can apply but only the truly insane are admitted.” And how do such unique people make their way in the world? With a little help from their friends.
Being in the business is sort of like signing up for the army or (in some instances) like going to prison. Once you’re in, you’re in and your fellow inmates don’t tend to talk much about how much better life might have been had we all gone into the insurance field. Nobody goes around bursting the bubble since truthfully, we all depend on that bubble to get us through next week’s meeting, that daunting rewrite or the all-important pilot audition. Friends protect each other in the business. And they help each other. Over the years, I’ve had pals who introduced me to employers, helped me improve my scripts and buoyed me up when I felt like I had made some tragic career-ending mistake. In my early days, friends literally fed me, clothed me and taught me how to stretch a dollar. Friends have celebrated my successes, taken my calls when the news wasn’t so good and had the guts to tell me when I was utterly full of shit.
Four years ago, when my personal life completely collapsed, I was forced to return to L.A. with my tail between my legs. Astoundingly, my friends (without waiting for an invitation to do so) instantly formed a protective circle around me. I was a wreck. I was broke, agent-less and emotionally devastated. But I had the great good fortune to be surrounded by people who know all too well that life can be (and often needs to be) reinvented.
One friend called and insisted that I meet him at the production office of a show he was running. When I arrived, he thrust a rather large check into my hands and told me there was no rush in paying it back. At first, I balked, saying I couldn’t possibly accept it, but my friend looked rather sternly in my eyes and said “I’ve done this before for other friends of mine. I’m not worried about it.” As I struggled with the guilt of accepting help, another friend reminded me of a few kindnesses that I had offered to others over the years. She made it plain that I had made more than a few deposits into the karma bank and that part of being a friend is accepting what others willingly want to offer. Oddly, I’d forgotten about most of the instances she mentioned to me. I’d always thought of any good deed I’d done not so much as helping out an individual but as helping out our largely misunderstood tribe. It always seemed like a matter of collective survival.
As much as my dear working-class family loves me, I know they will never understand me like my friends do. Most of us creative types grow up feeling like outsiders - that is until the magical day we find our way into the business and make the happy discovery that we are not the only ones with a deep desire to spin dreams into reality. Without doubt, we are a competitive and complicated bunch, but we are also keenly observant, remarkably intuitive and deeply loyal – especially to each other. Although most of us live lives of financial uncertainty, I don’t know anybody in the business who hasn’t shelled out to charities like the Actors Fund, Broadway Cares or the Motion Picture and Television Fund. Even the most successful of us realize that our luck could run out -- any day.
I guess part of being an artist is instinctively knowing what drives people to make certain decisions; even the truly rotten ones. That empathic part of us (sometimes referred to as “talent”) gives an inherent understanding of how easy it is to ignore the signs; to fall for the wrong person; to try to ride the wave a little longer than maybe we should have. It’s the stuff we make stories and performances out of, but it’s also (as the Zooey Deschanel “cotton” commercial reminds us) the fabric of our lives.
Lately, I’ve had a lot of great reminders of how blessed I am in the friend department as many of my nearest and dearest have been showing up to see me in this play. It’s one thing to set your DVR and tape an episode of “Criminal Minds.” It’s quite another to make the time and shell out for a ticket to an actual honest-to-God show. And I thank everybody, especially Karen, for showing up. It’s meant quite a lot to me and I look forward to doing the same for them.
And now, because I am in show business, I’d like to end this touching tribute to friendship with a shameless plug. “Better Angels” runs through November 22nd at the Colony Theatre! http://www.colonytheatre.org/ Hope you can make it, but I’ll still love you even if you don’t.
Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/