Sunday, October 31, 2010

Star Baby!

I was anxiously looking over my bills when the phone rang. Someone was calling me via their cell phone and it was a very bad connection. “David, it’s Ogger,” a friendly, but very scratchy voice said. “Hi!” I replied, not knowing who I was talking to. “Gotta a client who needs some coaching. She’s right here. Part of a competition. Have her call you?” Clearly, whoever “Ogger” was, he was a busy man who only spoke in sentence fragments. “Sure!” I replied as I stared at my unpaid Am-Ex bill. “Have her call me!” Then “Ogger” finished by saying, “She’s the most adorable 11 year-old you’ll ever meet.”

Had “Ogger’s” cell phone connection not broken, I probably would have told him that I don’t coach children. It’s not that I don’t like children. I do. Very much, in fact. But children in show business are a different breed. More specifically, their parents are. In my experience, there is nothing scarier, or more disturbing than a parent who thinks their child has talent.

A day or two passed before a lovely, polite woman with a West Indies accent named Bernice called. She was the mother of Ariel, who was in need of some dramatic coaching on a couple of monologues she had prepared for an international children’s talent competition about to be held here in Burbank, California. Bernice, Ariel and her little sister, Tihara had travelled all the way from their home just outside London to participate in the competition. Was I free to work with Ariel tomorrow?

I decided the best way to get out of this was to price myself out of the running, so I took my usual hourly coaching rate (the one I charge for adults) and doubled it. Bernice thought that was fine, asked to book two hours of my time and inquired as to what time they should arrive.

The following day, Bernice, Ariel and baby Tihara (a stocky three-year old) showed up at my door. They were very apologetic about being only a few minutes late and explained that they were traveling around Los Angeles via taxi. Apparently, Bernice didn’t drive. I instantly felt bad for them since commuting via taxi in L.A. meant they were spending a small fortune. Once we were settled in, Bernice explained that Ariel was representing Great Britain in every category of this competition (Singing, Dancing, Acting and Spokesmodel). My job was to spruce up her monologues, of which she had four (comedic, dramatic, character & contestant’s choice). Curious about the competition, I asked a few questions. Bernice began to explain the rules and regulations of this prestigious event.

Apparently, there was an initial fee to apply, followed by an processing fee, followed by an acceptance fee which then put you in the same breathing space as many powerful agents, casting directors and talent executives – all of whom were desperately looking for the next big child star. However, if you wanted them to actually watch your child perform, there were more fees to be paid. In fact, every category had a fee. Plus, if you wanted your child to have more than 60 seconds in front of the judges, you had to pay for that time as well. It was a total racket. My heart went out to Bernice who was beaming with pride that her daughter was about to be seen by so many big time Hollywood star-makers.

I glanced over at Ariel. She was a radiant little girl, virtually bursting with enthusiasm. I asked her if she was ready to start. She was. Ariel tore into first monologue with fierce energy and lots of hand gestures. Between the speed she was going and her British accent, I only understood about a third of it. Since this was not a cheerleading competition, I tried to gradually reduce the number of hand gestures someone had clearly taught her and suggested that she might start thinking of each of her monologues as more of a story that she was telling to the audience. Ariel, in addition to being adorably cute, was extremely smart, and I could see her excitement rise each time she grasped one of the ideas I offered her. Every time Ariel make an improvement, Bernice who was seated beside me, would quickly scribble down a few notes about what I had said. While watching her daughter, Bernice would sometimes unconsciously roll her lips in and bite them to contain her joy. Tihara, meanwhile, had gotten a little bored and was busy destroying a few of my magazines.

Despite my offering, Ariel never wanted to take a break. She loved performing. Finally she launched into her fourth monologue which sounded vaguely familiar. I then realized that Ariel was playing legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee from the musical “Gypsy.” After she finished, I felt compelled to ask if mother or daughter was familiar with the Ms. Lee or the musical. They were not and had found the monologue on the internet and thought it was a good match for Ariel. “Can you tell me please…What is this ‘Burlesque?’” asked Bernice in her lovely Jamaican accent. I cleared my throat. “Well, Bernice…” I began, “It was a form of live entertainment where comedians told jokes to the audience and then women came out… and sort of danced to the music while removing their clothes.” Bernice’s face went blank. So did mine when I saw over her shoulder that Tihara was about to pull one my plants down on her head – which she did.

Once Tihara stopped crying and the mess was cleaned up, I assured Bernice that “Gypsy,” the character her daughter would be playing, had revolutionized the Burlesque industry by not taking her clothes off, but instead performing behind large feathered fans, etc. Bernice looked relieved. I told her that the material was not considered racy here in the States and would be fine for the competition. Secretly, I wondered how many ambitious little girls would be playing strippers, junkies or prostitutes in the competition tomorrow.

Over all, Ariel was a pro. Not only was she talented, but she was very charming to watch. When I asked her to perform all four of her monologues back-to-back at the end of the session, she didn’t forget a single note I had given her. The child was an entertainment machine. It was time for Bernice to pay me. As she counted out the bills into my hand, I felt horribly guilty. These sweet people were clearly being taken for a ride by the event promoters and part of me wanted to hand the money back to Bernice. Bernice, however was delighted with what I’d been able to achieve with Ariel in such a short time. “You are so much better than her teacher in New York?” “New York?” I inquired. I then learned that for the last two years, Bernice and Ariel had been flying from London to New York once a month so Ariel could have a short lesson with an acclaimed children’s acting teacher there. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad. I folded the bills and tucked them into my pocket. “I’m sure Ariel is going to dazzle them tomorrow,” I said. I shook Ariel’s hand and reminded her that the most important thing she could do tomorrow was to not worry about the judges or any of the other contestants and to have a great time! “You’re very good, Ariel,” I said, “And no matter what happens tomorrow, you’ll always be very good.” She beamed and thanked me for my help.

Two days later, I got a call from Bernice. Ariel had gotten second place in the singing competition and “honorable mention” in the acting division. Plus she had been approached by two agents and a manager. Bernice nervously asked if I knew anything about them. I didn’t. I could hear the anxiety in her voice. I told her that all she had to do was go to these meetings and see what they had to say. I told her to ask lots of questions and not be shy. I also urged her to particularly ask about any and all financial arrangements. “Oh…okay,” she said quietly. I heard a little scratching noise as she added that piece of advice to her ever-expanding notes. I suddenly felt bad for Bernice. Reality was beginning to set in. I suspected that the dream of Ariel making it big in Hollywood was starting to look awfully expensive and complicated. I also knew it was her unwavering love for her daughter that had taken them this far. “All she wants to do is perform in front of people, Bernice,” I offered. “She can do that anywhere. She has her whole life in front of her.” “I guess you’re right,” answered Bernice tentatively and sighed. “We’ll go. We’ll see what they say. Right?” “Right,” I answered. Then there was a small crash in the background and Bernice had to go. Her younger daughter, Tihara (who I suspect might have a big career ahead of her in women’s wrestling) had just knocked over a lamp in their hotel room.

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/


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Saturday, October 23, 2010

You Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

Once when I was a young actor in New York, a casting director recommended me to an agent. I was very excited. The agent was well established and had a nice office. I felt sure that if I could convince her to represent me, I’d be well on my way to stardom. I was maybe 22 years old at the time and had very little experience with the “business” side of show business. At that tender age, I didn’t know how to recognize the first signs of trouble. Like for instance when I was kept waiting for 40 minutes in a waiting area directly across from the agent’s office. Her door was open and I could clearly see she was cleaning out her purse and occasionally staring out the window for a few minutes at a time. Every time her assistant alerted her that she had an incoming call, the agent would simply say “Take a message.” A couple of times the assistant glanced at me with a look that, in hindsight, was probably her way of trying to warn me that if I valued my dignity, I should leave now. Finally, I was summoned in.

The agent glanced over my resume. “You were in ‘The Rimers of Eldritch?’” she asked. “Yes!” I replied enthusiastically. She frowned. “I don’t remember you.” “Oh,” I said, a little hurt. “Actually, I was one of the leads.” “Uh huh,” she replied sullenly. Her eyes returned to my resume where she could find nothing that interested her. Finally, she looked up at me with a resentful glare. “Look, “she said bitterly, “I go to the theatre six nights a week and I only represent people that I have a very special feeling about. And frankly, I don’t have that feeling about you.” I was stunned by her frankness. “Oh, okay,” I said awkwardly and started to stand. “Well, thanks for seeing me…” “Wait!” she bellowed, clearly irritated by my thoughtless interruption. “Have you got a monologue? Close the door and do it for me.”

Being young and desperate for an agent, I closed the door and performed my monologue for her. When I finished, she stared silently at me with glassy eyes. Thirty seconds passed. Finally, I cleared my throat. “I’m done,” I said cautiously. “So, you’re good,” she said in a voice as flat as paper. “Does that mean I should represent you?” Slowly, I began backing toward the door. “It’s okay. Really! You don’t have to represent me.” “Sit down!” she commanded. I sat down. “I could if I wanted to…” she said. “You could what?” I asked. “I could represent you, without having that ‘special feeling’…” This time, my innate human instinct for survival kicked in and I managed to escape, all the while thanking her repeatedly for her time and swearing on my grandmother’s grave that I would “be in touch.”

The following week, an ambulance was called by her coworkers and the agent was removed from her office and taken to the local psyche ward where she spent the next few weeks. This was my first experience with "show business crazy."

Nobody truly knows whether show business attracts crazy people or simply takes fairly normal people and makes them crazy. I know that crazy happens in every profession, but the difference is that in my business it often goes unaddressed for years at a time. If the crazy person is a star who is making heaps of money, you can bet that there will be at least one person (if not many) whose job it is to clean up the messes and spin the nutty behavior as boring run-of-the-mill eccentricity. But once your client is found hiding in the bushes without their teeth or hurling racial slurs on YouTube, crazy gets a little hard to sell. Sadly, there are sometimes drug or alcohol problems involved. If not addressed, truly nutty behavior eventually overwhelms any and all goodwill the celebrity may have amassed over their careers. Just this week, MegaMess Mel Gibson (who never met a minority group he didn’t loathe) was yanked from a tiny cameo role in “Hangover 3” because cast and crew members refused to work with him.

But Hollywood Crazy reared its head in an even more spectacular way on Friday when it was announced that veteran character actor Randy Quaid and his wife, Evi are now seeking refugee status in Canada. The Quaids were arrested Thursday in Vancouver after police responded to an "incident" on a street corner. Given the couple's long and loony history, one can only guess what went down. Mr. Quaid, brother of the wonderfully-sane Dennis Quaid and a once-terrific actor in his own right, has a resume that includes many notable films like “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “The Last Detail,” “Midnight Express,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Brokeback Mountain” and the cult favorite “Kingpin.” He also holds the almost-unheard-of distinction of being one of the few actors ever thrown out of the stage actors union, Actors Equity for disruptive and violent behavior toward his fellow cast members in 2007.

And what were the Quaids doing in Canada? It might have something to do with the fact that they are currently wanted on $500,000 bench warrants for allegedly squatting in their former home in California back in September (and doing $5,000 worth of damage to the property). This follows walking out on a $10,000 bill at a luxury hotel in Santa Barbara, resisting arrest and ducking their subsequent court dates. When they finally did appear before the judge, Randy, for reasons no one could quite explain, brought the Golden Globe Award he won for playing former President Lyndon Johnson with him.

When asked by Canadian authorities why they were seeking asylum, the Quaids replied that they feared that a group of “Star Whackers,” (a shadowy group of assassins the Quaids claim are responsible for the “murders” of Heath Ledger and David Carradine), were now after them. Evi Quaid told the CBC that "Randy has known eight close friends murdered in odd, strange manners ... We feel that we're next.”

I suspect that what’s next for the Quaids is a very, very long stretch of unemployment. This recent string on insanity is nothing new for Mr. and Mrs. Quaid. 15 years ago, I knew a couple of people involved in a film project the Quaids managed to sell to a major Hollywood producer. The pitch (called “The Debtors”) was about a group of people who checked into luxury hotels and used credit cards to purchase shit they couldn’t pay for. Sound familiar? Gradually, Evi took over the writing of the script and eventually assumed the duties of the director as well; occasionally directing in the nude. When a group of extras filled a suit, claiming that their personal clothing was ruined in a scene where fake semen was sprayed on the crowd, the film’s investors removed the Quaids from the project. This, however, didn’t stop the couple from stealing the original prints and taking them to Canada where they re-edited the film, ignored the American “cease and desist” orders and managed to show the film in the Toronto Film Festival under a different name. God bless them. The Quaids have enjoyed a long run as one of Hollywood’s scarier running jokes, but I think that ride is over now. Never fear. This is show business. Someone will soon arrive to take their place.

Several years after the incident with the agent that I referred to earlier, I saw her at a party. I valiantly tried to avoid her, but she eventually cornered me at the bar. “I know you from somewhere,” she said. I had no ax to grind with this woman so I chose my words carefully, saying we had “met once” when she was at her former agency. I saw a flicker of recognition in her eyes, but she didn’t flinch. She apologized. She looked great, having lost easily 20 pounds and she no longer had the look of a haggard slaughterhouse employee. She was again working in the industry, but not as an agent. “It wasn’t for me,” she said. I congratulated her. It was (is) nice to be reminded that show business is filled with human beings; all of us a little nuts; but most of us capable of bouncing back with a little care and reevaluation. Good luck, Randy and Evi. And goodluck, Canada.

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/

Monday, October 18, 2010

Farewell Mrs. Clever

Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010)

I was very new to Southern California in 1993. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing here. In theory I’d come here to work as a writer, but so far nothing much had happened on that front. Just as I was about to give up hope, a play I’d written and had some success with in New York was scooped up by an independent L.A. theatre producer who wanted to stage it at a gorgeous venue in West Hollywood. I suddenly felt better. At least, I had a reason to stay.

I’d recently made connection with a director whose work I admired from New York. He was also a recent transplant to L.A. and was not particularly busy. With Ken onboard, I felt like the show was in good hands. By February, most of the play had been cast. However, we still hadn’t found an actress for the peach role of the nutty, born-again aunt who tries to run everyone’s life, particularly her ne’er-do-well son’s, by using literal advice taken straight from her Bible.

Our producer (an L.A. theatre veteran) knew that West Coast audiences rather like seeing exhumed stars from yesteryear and started applying serious pressure for us to cast a celebrity in the role. I had no problem with that idea, except that we couldn’t get any name actor’s agent to return our calls. The play paid very little; but it was a nice showcase for a comic actress. Finally, the producer convinced us to audition her old friend, Barbara Billingsley.

Like everybody else of my generation, I remembered Ms. Billingsley as “June Cleaver” the supernaturally perfect mother from the classic TV sit-com “Leave it to Beaver.” The character of “June” was iconic and had somehow created the illusion that American housewives everywhere prepared dinner and vacuumed the house wearing high heels and pearls. The original run of “Leave it to Beaver” was a bit before my time, but the reruns were on five days a week when I was a kid. I knew Ms. Billingsley's work well. I adored her, but was having a hard time envisioning her as a tough as nails Southern matriarch. Under heavy pressure from our producer we agreed to audition her the following week. Then the rains came.

This was my first experience with the legendary El Nino rains that sweep through Southern California every few years. I had never seen anything like it. They felt ominous and (for lack of a better word) “Biblical.” For reasons, I don’t really remember, it was decided that instead of asking Barbara to drive in during the storm, the director, my co-writer and I would drive out to her home in Malibu to audition her in the comfort of her own home.

The morning of the audition it was pouring. There was a nasty wind whipping up and the driving conditions were terrible. As we snaked along the PCH, we twice encountered fresh rock slides that had only recently come hurdling down the hillside. Twice, we considered turning back, but decided that meeting Beaver’s mother was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It took some doing. We were almost 30 minutes late by the time we finally located Barbara’s home which literally sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Unable to find a convenient space, we were forced to park some distance away and just as we started trekking back to her house, the wind whipped up; blowing the rain at an almost horizontal angle. By the time we reached Barbara’s front door, we were all soaked. At this point, I no longer wanted to be in L.A. I was a wet, angry New Yorker who felt utterly jerked around. The director rang the bell and a few seconds later, the door opened. And there stood June Cleaver.

Barbara, who must have been in her seventies at the time, looked gorgeous. Tall, trim and beautifully coiffed, she was dressed in a stylishly coordinated sweater and slacks. And although she wasn’t wearing pearls, she was wearing a necklace that looked like pearls. A look of surprise swept over her face when she saw us. It was as if she had been utterly unaware that it was raining outside. “Oh my goodness!” she gushed, “Come in this minute and get out of those wet things! I’ve made some muffins.”

The next hour was somewhat surreal. To say that Ms. Billingsley was a warm and gracious hostess would be a huge understatement. Hanging our coats by the fire, she served us coffee and warm muffins right out of the oven and gave us a short tour of her lovely beach front home where she had lived since her “Beaver” days. Post-“Beaver” she had steered clear of acting for many years and chosen to focus on life with her husband who had been a successful attorney. It was only after his death that she had begun to inch back into acting, beginning with her brilliantly hilarious turn as the “jive-speaking” translator in the classic movie “Airplane.”

Finally we settled into Barbara’s cozy living room. Since I was going to be playing the role of her son, it only made sense that I would read with her. It didn’t go terribly well. Barbara was not great at accents and the play took place in a mythical southern town. Plus, her timing seemed a bit off and most of the jokes weren’t landing. The director praised her first effort, then made a few suggestions. Barbara was very game, but her second reading wasn't much different. Not wanting to rush to judgment, we read an additional scene from later in the play, but it failed to take flight either. It was no reflection on Barbara. Performer and material simply didn't match. After a little more chit chat, we gathered up our wet coats, telling Ms. Billingsley that we had agreed to audition one more actress that day (a total lie) and that we would be in touch. I don’t think we fooled her for a second, but she couldn’t have been more generous and lovely.

On the drive back, nobody said anything about the audition for a while. Instead we oddly started talking about our mothers and how they had stacked up against the legendary “June Cleaver.” Finally, Ken, the director sighed. “Well, I had hoped that would work out.” I agreed. But Barbara was not really a theatre actress by trade or experience and it seemed like we wouldn’t have been doing her (or ourselves) any favors by casting her.

Eventually, we offered the role to a veteran Broadway character actress who could wrench a laugh out of even the grumpiest of audiences. Barbara came to see the play and stayed afterward to speak to every single member of the cast (including the actress we chose over her). Once again, I was struck by her grace and generosity. Everyone was thrilled to meet her. She was particularly kind to me and had nothing but high praise for the script. It was my first time meeting someone whose image had flickered across the TV screen for my entire childhood. I’ve since had this experience a few times (most recently with William Shatner). It’s one of the perks of living and working in Hollywood, and for me it’s never less than thrilling. As a lonely kid, these people represented a world of possibility that was just on the other side of my TV screen. To have Captain Kirk clap me on the back and say “Welcome Aboard” or have Mrs. Cleaver offer me warm muffins on a rainy day, are moments I can’t help but feel extraordinarily grateful for.

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/