Recently, I was reading in one of the entertainment rags that in 2009, Steven Spielberg was paid $50 million dollars by Universal for theme-park royalties based on his movies. It made me wonder if Steve (as I like to call him) might be interested in designing a ride based on my life.
About a month ago, something happened to me that I wasn’t really expecting. I was struck with a very real bout of despair. I’m not talking about the to-be-expected mood swings that come along with being in the entertainment business. I’m talking about an uncontrollable freefall into the ninth circle of hopeless hell.
I’d just come back from visiting my oddball family, which to be honest, can sometimes put me in a vulnerable place. Dropping my luggage just inside the door, I gathered up my unopened mail and began to sort through it. Among the restaurant menus and union magazines that I never read, were two unexpected bills. I supposed “unexpected” is the wrong word, in that I knew they would be arriving at some point, but I didn’t think they’d arrive on the same day. And I didn’t realize just how frighteningly huge they would be. 2009, although very fulfilling in a number of ways, hadn’t exactly been a banner year in the money department. As I stared at these two ginormous invoices, both of which were marked “due on receipt,” I had absolutely no idea how I was going to pay them.
In order to avoid a panic attack, I did what I always do -- I applied a nice thick layer of denial over the whole situation. “Oh, it’ll all work out,” I heard myself say as I tossed the offending bills on the dining room table, but something about the statement sounded hollow and unconvincing. A cloud began to form over my head and for the next two days, I couldn’t shake it. Then midweek, as I sat at my desk, eating a chicken salad sandwich, the earth opened up without warning and I tumbled into the abyss. There was no denying it. I had failed.
Just a few hours before, I had been a working artist. Not famous. No genius, but clever enough to make a living in Hollywood and remain vaguely optimistic about my future. Now suddenly, I was a middle-aged flop. What had happened? Instantly, my mind went leapfrogging backward to my early days when all I wanted in the world was Timothy Hutton’s career. He’d just won the Oscar for “Ordinary People,” playing the same kind of sensitive troubled young man I knew I was born to play. And why hadn’t I been cast in “Mask” instead of Eric Stolz? I was really good in that audition. They’d said so! Surely, if I’d gotten that part, I’d have lots of money now. Plus I’d know Cher.
Having opened the wound, I couldn’t stop pouring on the salt. Why hadn’t I moved to L.A. when I was still young and cute? Why had I clung to that stupid New York actor dream for so long? Or maybe I should never have left New York in the first place! Who knows? By now I might have been a big deal Tony-winner (like my friend Julie White). The slide continued into the following day. Why hadn’t I signed with Agency A instead of Agency B? Why had that guy I used paint apartments with become an A-List writer instead of me? How come my former neighbor was now a gigantic film star and I couldn’t even get a lousy audition for one of her movies? Maybe I should have had children. They’d be young adults by now and could support me. And why hadn’t I won a fucking Emmy for “Boston Legal?” They give out a truckload of those things every year! They couldn’t spare one? Suddenly, I was neck-deep in that awful feeling I'd when I was a kid and it was time to “choose up teams” in gym class. Bespectacled and utterly un-athletic, I was always the last to be picked. Here I was again, standing against the wall. The last to be picked. What the hell had happened to me? What had gone wrong?
Clearly, it was time to take action. I might not have enough money to pay my bills, but I sure as hell had enough to purchase a pint of Häagen-Dazs, a bag of Cheetos and a pack of American Spirits. As we all know, bad behavior never solved anything, but sometimes it can provide the perfect string section for the symphony of despair. As I sat watching a rerun of a talk show -- that I’d already seen – at one o’clock in the morning -- I tried to desperately to scrape up some forgiveness. Yes, it had been rugged lately. I’m not a born juggler. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but over time, I’ve learned to keep tap dancing; to keep tossing pebbles at the palace windows until somebody opens the latch and screams, “Okay, you can come in for a minute.” But on this particular evening -- at one o’clock in the morning -- covered in Cheeto crumbs, I felt like I’d run out of tricks. There are worse things than failing, I told myself. I didn’t have cancer. I wasn’t living in a cardboard box (yet). Many people I knew were struggling. Maybe I could have a garage sale. Maybe everything would look better in the morning.
It didn’t. That is until the mail came and there, in among the flyers for shows I have no intention of seeing and offers to sink myself further into debt, was one extremely large royalty check for a play I wrote almost twenty years ago. I had virtually forgotten that the play even existed, much less that it was still being performed somewhere out there in the hinterlands. But happily, the play had not forgotten me. Suddenly, things weren’t so bad. That sad, broken, hopeless wretch who hadn’t showered in two days was quickly replaced by a still energetic guy who might have a few more tricks up his sleeve. I was fine. Better than fine. I was a show business professional.
Funny how dreams never really die. Thirty years after having bought my first ticket on this ride, I still like it. Every time the car whips around the track at breakneck speed, forcing my stomach into my throat, I swear that I’ll never get on it again, but I always do. I haven’t been near a real roller coaster in more than a decade, but I still remember that dizzying sensation when you are hurtling down toward what feels like certain death, only to be jerked up and out of harm’s way at the last possible second. I always loved that moment of salvation, but my favorite part was what came next; that long slow climb back up the tracks as your heart fills with anticipation. Up you go, while anything resembling the earth slips from your peripheral vision. You can still hear the music and the crowd, but they are so far below you. All you can see is big blue sky. And you just keep getting closer and closer.
Copyright 2010 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/
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/QuitcherBitchyn