Not so long ago, I was cleaning out our hallway closet and discovered that between my wife and I, we were in possession of 14 black baseball caps. All of them were crew gifts from film and TV shows, and most of them we had never worn and never would. I gathered up the collection to leave in a box behind our building. There are quite a few homeless people trying to get by in the West End, and most “donated” items get snatched up fast.
I set the box down in the alley, then hesitated to leave behind one of the caps. It was the one that had the title And Then Came You embroidered on the front in multicoloured letters. As I thought about it for a moment, I could almost feel a familiar throbbing in my forehead …
In the year 2000, I was living in a little apartment on Wooster Street in Los Angeles. The area is known as “Beverly Hills Adjacent”, which really just adds up to a lot of nail salons and gelato shops. At least it did back then. Out my kitchen window, I looked directly into a Ju Jitsu studio where people in white pajamas thrashed around on white mats. From my living room window, I could see the front door of my neighbour, Warren. At the time, he was an eager young assistant at a C level agency, now he is a “Super Agent” to among others, Oprah Winfrey and Jim Carrey. (Something tells me Warren no longer lives in that building.) I had tested for a few pilots by then, and landed a few decent parts, my first being a guest star opposite Ted Danson on his show Becker. But now I was running out of cash fast. Rent was looming. The AC and gas gauge were gone on my comically oversized 1986 Cadillac Brougham, and the brakes were on the way out. Something had to give.
When the sides for a lead in an ABC pilot came squeaking and groaning in through my fax machine (yes, kids, this was before our destiny was delivered to us in the palm of our hand), I was hopeful and eager to get to work.
The character was the classic “Funny Gay Best Friend of the Lead.” My agent told me, “They’ve seen every gay actor in Hollywood and now they’re bringing in straight guys, so tuck your shirt in and go get it!” I learned my lines, put on a good outfit with my shirt tucked in, double checked the route in the Thomas Guide map book (no GPS!) and drove west on Pico, headed for the next audition that would potentially change my life.
At the session, the casting directors and the producers greeted me warmly. They loved my read. They laughed at all their own punchlines and beamed at me like they had found money on the
On to the studio test, killing it for more grinning creatives and execs, then on to network test in a cavernous room at ABC. Again, it just clicked. I screwed up a line, calling the reader by my own character’s name, and quickly improvised something that made the suits slap their knees with laughter. You never know, but when you know you know, and I knew – it was mine. A few hours later it was official. I was one of the leads on a series called And Then Came You, guaranteed the pilot and a minimum of 10 out of 13 episodes if it got picked up.
And then came the table read at the spacious home of one of the producers. My jokes didn’t seem to be landing quite as well as the other cast members’ lines were. The producers wore tight smiles as they chuckled, sipping their bottles of Evian, turning script pages and scribbling notes. Later, when my friends asked how the table read went, I said, “Not nearly as well as the auditions did.” They assured me things would be fine once we “got the show on its feet.”
We soon started rehearsals at the FOX Studio, a blissfully short drive from my apartment in my tandoori oven of a Cadillac. Zero laughs. Not one of my jokes landed. They had hired me because what I was doing was, in their words, “so complex and subtle”, but now it was just coming across as flat and dry. Although no one said it, clearly they wanted me to camp it up and go big or get in my obnoxious car and go home. This was the heyday of Will & Grace and they wanted a playfully energized “Jack” type character. I was giving them Adam Arkin on Chicago Hope.
A vein began to pulse on my forehead -- a neon sign flashing “stress … stress … stress …” My friends asked how it was going and I pointed to the vein and said, “not that great.” At the next couple of rehearsals, I withdrew into myself and didn’t talk to the rest of the cast.
While they ate lunch together, I paced around the studio lot, puffing on cigarettes with my head down. At rehearsals, during other people’s scenes, I retreated to the dark areas of the sound stage behind the flats, muttering different line readings, trying to find a truthful way into my character, “Phillip”. The director started referring to me as “Marlon” as in, Marlon Brando, as in, “it’s just a sit-com, Marlon, lighten up.” A lot of people in Banana Republic blazers and scripts-in-hand stood around not laughing at my lines while they howled at my castmates performances. One time, lurking behind the flats, I heard the other actors making plans to go out for dinner after rehearsal and when I walked onto the set they stopped talking. That pulsing vein on my forehead got angrier and I withdrew more deeply into myself. Every time we rehearsed the scenes I was in, I entered like a man walking up to home plate, knowing he was going to strike out and get sent back to the minors. It was hell, and there was no way out. All the director could muster up was, “have more fun with it.”
I called my manager that night and told her I was going to quit. She told me if I quit, I wouldn’t get paid. I said “I can’t stand this, everyone hates me. I can’t go back tomorrow.” She said, “Hang in there, if you get fired you get paid in full for the pilot.” So now I was basically like one of Mike Tyson’s opponents in the mid 80s, walking into the ring knowing I was going to get knocked out, but at least there would be a cheque waiting when I regained consciousness.
On the final day of rehearsal, we were working on a newly added scene. In the scene, the “Hot Young Love Interest of the Lead” of the show walks into the room and the director told me to react silently to his arrival. I didn’t know what to do and furrowed up my brow. The director, growing increasingly aggravated with my inability to “have fun with it”, said, “Come on Marlon, just make a funny face or a goofy gesture so we know you think he’s hot, then leave the room. Aaaand, ACTION!”
The “Hot Young Love Interest of the Lead” walked in and said his line. I looked at him for a beat then wound up my right arm like a turbo windmill and smacked his ass as hard as I could. I felt the electric jolt of the blow travel from my toes, up my arm, into my shoulder and into the throbbing vein in my forehead. Silence fell upon FOX Studio. “Hot Young Love Interest of the Lead’s” face turned bright red, and I turned on my heel and headed straight to my dressing room. I sat on the coffee table, in shock, rocking slightly with my head in my hands, like Travis Bickle sitting on the curb after he kills everyone at the end of Taxi Driver.
After a few minutes, there was a knock on my door, then it opened before I could say anything. An assistant popped her head in but didn’t make eye contact. “Notes on the stage in five,” she chirped, then quickly shut the door. I walked out onto the stage in a daze, forehead vein about to burst, and listened to the producer tell everyone how great they were doing and how it was going to go “so amazing” at the taping tomorrow. He looked everyone in the eye with a big Hollywood smile. Everyone except me. He never stopped grinning, but he looked right past me like I wasn’t there and never had been.
Back home, I called my manager and told her that pay or no pay, I was quitting. Now. “Hang tight for another hour,” she said. “If it’s going as bad as you say it is, you won’t have to quit.” After we hung up, it didn’t take long for my phone to ring. It was the producer and he wasted no time. “I guess you know why I’m calling,” he began. “It wasn’t you; it was us,” he cooed, “we went the wrong way in casting this part.” Then he offered up, “We think you’re great and if this show goes, we are going to make sure to bring you back as a guest star in a perfect role.” He could not have been nicer or more generous. I think he said some other things too, but I didn’t hear them. I was looking at my reflection in the black glass door of my microwave oven. The pulsing vein on my forehead had disappeared. It was over and all I felt was deep and utter relief.
My agent and manager said not to worry, “Actors get released from pilots all the time. It’s part of the process.” But I know they were disappointed. If I shot all 13 episodes, they would have made nice commissions. And if the show was a hit and went 5 or more seasons, real money would have been pouring in for me. Definitely car-buying money. Eventually house-buying money. Ultimately life-changing money.
When the cheque for the pilot arrived, I took a few of my friends out to El Compadre on Sunset. We chowed down on platefuls of salty, gluey Enchiladas Verdes De Pollo and got hammered on Coronas and Dos Equis. Everyone, especially me, had some good laughs while I recounted all the agonizing details of getting “released” from my first series regular contract.
All good. Live and learn. That’s showbiz.
Looking back now though, I would have done a few things differently. First, when things fell flat at the reading, I would have called my acting teacher, Ivana Chubbuck, for a “911” emergency coaching. She would have guided me to finding a way to give them what they ended up wanting, a broader more over the top performance, while keeping it rooted in truth. In fact, she would have found a way for me to use all the angst and discomfort I was feeling, throbbing forehead vein and all, to find a compelling and urgent objective for “Phillip” to go after in a desperately hilarious way.
Also, I would have asked the producer for a sit down with the cast and director after the second or third rehearsal. I would have said something like, “Hey you guys, as you can all tell, I’m kind of struggling here. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it, but I WILL figure this out really soon. I think you’re all great and I want to thank you for your patience and support as I find my way.” I probably would have cried a bit. Maybe a couple of them would have cried with me. They probably all would have hugged me and offered encouragement. My authenticity and vulnerability are perhaps my most genuine attributes, but “Marlon” clammed up and didn’t let anyone in.
While I do believe that with a coaching and an open heart, I could have turned that ship around before it went over the falls, I have no lasting regrets. If I ended up on the show, my life may have gone a very different way. Maybe good, maybe bad, but very different for sure. And I’m happy with the way my life went and is going. As I write this, I’m grateful for the opportunity to look back, older and wiser, to share this cautionary Beverly Hills Adjacent tale with you.
Now, back to 2022. About a week after I cleaned out our hall closet, I was getting in my car early one morning, heading to set for a project I was directing. A homeless man was headed my way in the alley, pushing a rattling shopping cart over-filled with bottles and cans. His hands were filthy, and his clothes were pretty shabby, but on his head was a clean black baseball cap with the words And Then Came You across the front. We locked eyes as he rumbled by. He nodded. I nodded back. The sun was shining and we were doing all right.