Let’s not talk about writing. Let’s talk about the fact that making a living as an actor can really take it out of you. The highs, the lows, the uncertainty, the rejections. I’m thinking of two friends.
The first graduated from Julliard, one of the most prestigious programs in the country, when he was in his early twenties. His very first job out of Julliard was on Broadway. He played Tony in West Side Story. Tony? The lead? Maria, Maria, Maria? I saw him, he was ridiculously good. Handsome, a fine actor, a voice like a bell. While still doing West Side Story, he was cast by Italian producers as the lead in a monumental mini-series about Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer. It took over a year and a half to film and he traveled to exotic locations all over the world. It was a leading man’s dream – a costume epic – incredible sets, battles with cast of thousands, runaway stallions, sword fights, love affairs with gorgeous maidens. He worked with any number of international stars. He had regular dinners with Burt Lancaster, Marcelo Mastrioni and Sophia Loren. He met Frederico Fellini. From there he went to features. He played princes and lovers. He was called back to Italy, where he was a sort of movie guest star, on a regular basis. At the age of thirty he began to lose his hair. The films released domestically didn’t do all that well. He went back to the stage. He did two of my plays. He sang at my wedding. He began to do a lot of television roles but for some reason, never seemed to latch onto a regular on-going role. Shortly after birth, his son was diagnosed with a disability. The boy would need constant and expensive care for the rest of his life. The jobs were drying up. He was still lean and striking looking but somehow no longer a leading man and not quite a character actor. A man of honor and great responsibility – and yes, deep faith – and in need of money to support his family, he joined the real world. He got a job. It left him little time to audition as an actor. He finally stopped doing it altogether. Today he manages a business, is a devoted husband and father and on Sundays sings in the church choir. He’s often asked to do solos.
He still has a voice like a bell.
I met the second friend about a month after I arrived in New York. Fall, 1976. We worked at a squash club. I strung rackets, he washed towels. We were the same age. He was an actor, I was a writer. He had a voice like a box of rocks and was already starting to lose his hair. He did my plays for no money. He was terrific. But he was replaced in a play of mine when it transferred to an Off-Broadway theatre, because he wasn’t a “name”. He did stage work all around in New York, usually in small venues. He was on Broadway in a play where he sat on stage for two hours and got to say one line. He made most of his living out of town playing leads in regional theatres. He came to Michigan and replaced an actor in a play I’d written. He played a singing cowboy. He had a voice like a box of rocks but could carry a mean tune. I directed him in Cincinnati. We laughed ourselves sick for two months. No one laughs like theatre people. It helps you deal with the uncertainty about the future. In his late thirties he moved to Los Angeles. He auditioned for a TV pilot I’d written. He was – yes; as usual – terrific. He didn’t get the job. A couple of weeks later, he called to tell me he’d gotten a role in another pilot. My show never made it out of the gate, his went on the air and ran for three years. It would have gone much longer but the lead had a drug habit and was prone to nervous breakdowns. But the money allowed him to buy a house. He became what’s known in LA as a “working actor”. He’d get a TV part here, he’d get a film part there, a commercial here, a voice over there. It paid enough for him to live a comfortable middle-class existence, an accomplishment unto itself in show biz. He always continued to do theatre, usually in small places around LA, usually for free. He was in constant demand for readings. He began to direct. He is a terrific stage director. He directed a play of mine just this last year. For no money. He is bald now and bearded and still has a voice like a box of crushed rocks. This last year, he did a commercial that aired during the Superbowl. It’s generated over one hundred thousand hits on You Tube. He was subsequently offered three weeks on a film. He played a cowboy. The heck with the money, he said the highlight of the job was wearing a duster and cowboy hat and having a building blown sky-high behind him as he walked away from it. He’s that kind of guy. I have this feeling that after forty years, he has suddenly crossed some sort of invisible bridge. That the phone is going to start ringing now, that as he approaches age sixty, the jobs are going to start coming fast and furious.
I’m not sure what’s more difficult. To have had great success early in a career, only to see it go away or to have worked and struggled and held on your whole life only to suddenly become a success. I think the former.
My friend, the Julliard grad, has begun auditioning again.