I have always wanted to be a movie star, but I have always been terrified of rejection, and of Los Angeles, which seems to be a horrible place to live if you’re not already a movie star.
In my brief forays to Los Angeles, I met several people who had moved there with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions, but after decades of trying had not realized their dreams.
A friend in Iowa City heard that I was going to Los Angeles and asked me to look up her son, who had been a fan of my comedy troupe when we used to return from San Francisco to Iowa City for yearly shows. I usually don’t like to look up total strangers for the sake of their parents, but this time I did it, and he said he was pleased that I’d called, that his mother had told him I might be calling, and he agreed to meet for coffee.
All she had told me about him was that he had been trying to break into show biz for some time. When he appeared at Starbucks, he recognized me. I was struck by how good looking he was. In fact, he was beautiful. Errol Flynn with strawberry blond hair and beard.
It turns out he had been living in LA for fourteen years, and during that time had taken many acting and improvisation workshops. During those years he had rubbed shoulders with others who had “made it,” and gotten to know a few celebrated teachers, but had never actually worked in the field of show business. In all those fourteen years he had never been paid for acting, but had been paying others.
The cars whizzed by and the homeless people stumbled down the street, having imaginary conversations with no one in particular. It appeared that an old woman was living in the bushes outside Starbucks. I looked over at his beautiful, long, reddish blond hair and his piercing blue eyes. If they ever do a remake of Captain Blood and if he had the right agent, maybe he could score an audition. I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to change the subject and talk about Iowa and his mother.
I had another friend who had moved to LA along with a whole bunch of her friends when they all grew too successful for the live theater scene in Seattle. Twenty years later, a great number of these Seattle transplants were still in LA, but none of them were actually working in show business. Those who had graduate degrees were teaching as adjuncts at multiple community and private colleges. After a couple of decades of waiting for the phone to ring, a few had earned certification as ESL teachers. In fact, I went to a backyard party and met a hundred or so unusually good-looking people in their forties, who had traded in their headshots for TESOL diplomas and were now ESL teachers. They were no longer waiting for their agents to call with the next audition.
About twenty-seven years ago I had some Hollywood success, and spent a good deal of time at the offices of 20th Century Fox. There was an aura of 1940’s deco character about the place, but mostly it felt like a factory, or a community college. I once stood at an adjacent urinal in the men’s room next to a famous TV character actor. But my promise was short-lived, and it all came to nothing when I moved back to the Midwest and went into teaching.
I still wonder if I could have really gotten somewhere if I’d just hung in there, but then I remember the ESL teachers party and the handsome not-so-young man who had spend fourteen years taking acting workshops, and I decided that I don’t have thick enough skin to put myself in that position. Never did, never will. But I never really caught on in the world of University teaching either, because I hadn’t bothered to get a doctorate, and was using teaching as a fallback position. Those who had always wanted to teach had snatched up all the permanent tenure track appointments, and an ever-increasing number of us failed actors were lurking around, willing to take part-time, adjunct positions teaching English Composition or Public Speaking.
There are no guarantees in this life, and surely none in the Entertainment Industry, but since you only have one life to live, and there is only one period when youth and beauty coincide, aspiring movie stars might do well to try whole-heartedly to break into the business, the sooner the better. Although success is not guaranteed, failure is assured for lack of trying.