We all showed up at Screen Gems Studio in Atlanta with anticipation. We were there for an in-person audition for a network television show. In-person auditions have become rare in the high technology world of today’s television acting. What was once an actor’s pride, to enter a room with producers, directors, and casting directors and “win the room” has now been relegated to putting your audition on tape and e-mailing it to either your agents or a pay subscriber service (which I refuse to do). Things change.
The opportunity was a USA network episodic in its second season. The character, Mike runs an old dive bar somewhere in North Philadelphia. Mike acts as a counselor to the young actor playing one of the leads, Neil, whose father and Mike were friends in Vietnam. In terms of a character, Mike is interesting, a character with layers and the possibility of recurring work. Mike was worth the time and effort.
Long past the excitement of “being on television,” this opportunity from a business perspective meant a boost in pension pay, earnings toward family healthcare, a payday and perhaps several if Mike recurred. It was strictly business.
But then it turned into something else.
Walking into the audition waiting area, an impromptu reunion took place. The boys were there.
Gordon and I worked together a couple of years ago on the Television Movie Game of Your Life. We had fun and most of our scenes together. I like Gordon’s work. I like Gordon. He’s a great guy to spend 14 hours a day with for several weeks making television.
Charles was the odds on favorite for the job. He has the look. Television is about “The Look.” The producer’s creed is, “We can teach someone to act. We can’t teach a Look.” Charles wears a white beard. He’s short in stature and talks with a comforting tone. I’ve known Charles since we both worked on In The Heat Of The Night in the 1990s.
Alonzo, I don’t know. We share the same agent. Seems like a nice guy. He laughed a lot at the stories flying around the room.
Tony, I’ve never worked with. He had a nice run on a Tyler Perry show. He’s been searching for the next opportunity ever since.
We were all there to read for Mike. That’s “The Business.” There were five of us for the one job. We all had a 20% chance.
The job would begin shooting one week later. We all knew whoever got the job would be getting “The Phone Call” within twenty-four hours. The others would not. I always say not getting the job is like the country western song, If your phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.”
The Director was an hour late. Veterans to the “hurry up and wait,” aspect of the business, we took it in stride and took time to catch up. We were all there for the same job, but we’ve been in the business long enough to not let that fact get in the way of our friendships. We laughed and told stories. Gordon and I caught up on life. Charles told stories of his civil rights days. Alonzo laughed a lot. Tony told stories but fretted over the job. It showed in his eyes.
I enjoyed the experience. It had been a while. Over the last few years, since moving back from Los Angeles to Florida, business opportunities, production of a documentary film, and writing another book had taken me in different directions. I had managed to stay in the game with Game of Your Life, Drop Dead Diva, recurring work on Reckless and commercials. But, being at Screen Gems that day, brought back memories of eight successful years of the business in Atlanta, and thirteen more in Los Angeles.
Over the years there had been some 75 episodes of television, a half dozen films, a half dozen television movies and hundreds of commercials as talent, writer, and producer.
The director arrived. The casting agent apologized for him. The director did not apologize for himself. I was third in line to go in to read for him. When I walked in, the director was eating. I thought “Damn, he’s an hour late and he’s sitting in the audition eating a smelly sandwich.”
The casting associate positioned himself behind the camera. He would read with me. We exchanged pleasantries and took off. I did what I’d prepared but also went with the flow of the scene. I know Mike. I’ve known many Mikes over the years. He was not a hard guy to inhabit. It felt good. I had the room. But then, the director gave me the kiss of death. He turned to the casting associate and said, “All of them are so good.” I knew I was dead in the water. He didn’t need to blow smoke up my dress and make me feel good if he was going to hire me. Hiring me would make me feel good. It was Charles’ job. We all knew it.
I thanked the director and the casting director and met Gordon and Charles in the parking lot. Tony split. Alonzo having gone first was long gone. The three of us laughed and talked for another hour. We all vowed to get together but we knew the next time would probably also be an audition.
The skyline of Atlanta loomed in the background. It felt good to hang out with the guys, where I began my career. Soon, it was time for me to hit the road. Other business interests, outside of the business, beckoned. I gave the guys a hug and drove out of Atlanta.
By the way, my phone didn’t ring.
Got a call from a student reporter who wanted an interview. I agreed. She stumped me when she asked what were my all time favorite roles as an actor. I’d never thought about it and had to give it some time. I came up with a list of my top ten. Thought I’d share them with you.
1. Three theatre roles share the top spot.
Speak of Me as I Am, One man play, written and performed by yours truly.
Characters: Rev. Bobby Lee White, Emmett, Smitty, Curtis, Coach Billy, Ralph, Tyronne, Malik, Zonnie
“Nine guys, three Saturdays, One barbershop in Birmingham Alabama. It’s 1999.”
Fences, By August Wilson. Character: Troy Maxson, garbage man, powerful, resentful, and conflicted. Would love to play him again.
Ali, a one man play. An honor.
2. In the Heat of the Night, Television. Multiple episodes. Character: Ted Marcus, Attorney, City Councilman – My first real TV gig. Learned a lot. Worked with pros, Carol O’Connor, Howard Rollins, Denise Nicholas, and many, many others. Made great friends.
3. NYPD Blue, Television. Episode: Lost Israel. Character: Israel. Homeless mute accused of sexual assault and murder of a child. Innocent. Tearjerker. Episode won an Emmy. Always an honor when someone mentions it. Five star.
4. Miss Ever’s Boy’s, HBO films. Character: Ben Washington. Story based on real life Tuskegee Syphilis study where the U.S. government allowed black men in Tuskegee, Alabama to die from the natural progression of untreated syphilis rather than treat them with newly discovered penicillin. The study was released while I was a student at Auburn University. Felt the obvious connection. Ben was a great character to inhabit. Worked with wonderful actors and friend, Lawrence Fishburne and Alfree Woodard. Release of film prompted a long overdue presidential pardon to the men of the Tuskegee Study.
5. Fight Club, Film.Character: Detective Stern. Cult piece. Got to work with David Fincher and Ed Norton. Got to meet Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Direction tid-bits from Director Fincher and Casting director Laray Mayfield. Favorite of many twenty- something’s. Young man in a bar told me he’d seen it 52 times. Scary!
6. Jeepers Creepers 2, Film. Character: Coach Charlie Hanna, a favorite. Brings a smile to my face. Enjoyed working with Director Victor Salva. He trusted me with his coach and I think I delivered for him. Worked several weeks from sundown to sun up at Tejon Ranch conservancy eighty miles north of Los Angeles. Cold at night. Another cult favorite. Popular with the younger set.
7. Game of Your Life, NBC film. Character: Billy Taylor Jr.; Great dad! Honest man of substance. Loved playing him. Inspirational film.
8. Miracle in the Woods, TV film. Character: Henry Cooper Jr. Another great character role; Played Della Reese’s long lost son. Had to work with a cat, a first for me. Worked with Meredith Baxter, Patricia Heaton, Sanaa Lathan. Met my good friend Joe Slowensky who wrote the script.
9. Cold Case, TV series. Episode: “Time to Crime”. Character: Mike Odum, Family man willing to take the rap for a killing he didn’t do to save his son. Funny thing, I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. Joyce Guy who I did not know beforehand, played my wife. She’s from Montgomery, Alabama and Reggie Currelley who played our son had gone to college at Alabama State University in Montgomery. Score one for Alabama.
10. Tie for 10th Jack and Bobby, TV series. Character: Joseph Ride. Another great dad. The District, TV Series, Character: Archie Cryer. Ran a government undercover drug operation. Great bureaucrat.
What about you? Are there any favorites of yours that didn’t make my list?
Losing The Sopranos’ James Galdolfini to a sudden heart attack brought back many memories from my last “favorite series.” I watched every episode. It was the last time I’ve been a regular follower of any series. I loved it. The Sopranos broke a lot of casting, writing, and storytelling rules. But mostly I loved the words, the dialogue. Words have always been my thing. Powerful, soothing, funny, backbiting, nerve-racking, loving, or hateful, words are the essence of great story telling. In memory of The Sopranos and James Galdofini here are some of my favorite lines from some of my favorite television and film programs over the years.
Uncle Junior and Tony Soprano are lurking in the basement for a private chat outside the hearing distance of the nosy eavesdropping devices planted by the FBI. Uncle Junior confides to Tony his fear of the FBI being on his tail.
“I’ve got the Feds so far up my ass, I can taste Brylcreem.”
Lonesome Dove (best TV miniseries ever)
Captain Coll (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to convince Capt. Gus McCray (Robert Duvall) to drive a herd of cattle to Montana and relocate.
“Let’s do it Gus. Let’s go to Montana before the lawyers and bankers get it.”
Later, Gus delivers the eulogy for a young trail hand who dies enroute to Montana.
“Life is short. Shorter for some than others. Now let’s go on to Montana.”
Gus comments on a cap that Deats, (Danny Glover) had been wearing for the last fifteen years.
“Deats ain’t the kind of fella give up on a garment cause it gets a little wear on it.”
The wonderful Amy Adams is a hoot as the pregnant Ashley in the very funny film, Junebug. She tells her abusive and repressed husband, “God loves you just the way you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
Dog Day Afternoon
Al Pacino and John Cazale attempt to pull off the funniest bank robbery ever. With hostages inside the bank, TV cameras, cops, a crowd of supporters, and both Pacino’s male and female wives begging him to release the hostages and give up, Pacino orders a jet that will whisk him, his partner, and several of the hostages to a foreign country. Pacino consults with his partner, the slow-witted Cazale as to what foreign country he wants to go to. Cazale thinks on his choices and answers, “Wyoming.”
In the western Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, Will (Eastwood) and Ned (Freeman) are riding into town.
Knowing Will’s wife died a few years back, Ned asks, “Will, you ever go to town?”
Will answers, “Sometimes, to sell a pig or something.”
Ned gives him the look and says, “No, I mean go to town.”
Will returns the look and says, “No. Out of respect for my wife, I don’t do that anymore.”
They ride for a few seconds and Ned finishes his thought with,
“So what do you do, use your hand?”
(If you watch closely, you can see Clint Eastwood almost laugh.)
“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving.”
The Godfather (Marlon Brando)
“I’m going to make him a deal he can’t refuse.”
The Godfather Part II
Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone, “This is the life we have chosen.”
On the Waterfront
Lee J. Cobb to one of his henchmen admonishing him to get rid of all guns because the cops are hot on his tail.
“They’re dusting off the hot seat for me.”
These are some of my favorites. What are yours?