Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hit The Road, JB

“What I really want to do is direct.”
-Popular NYU Film School T-Shirt

The popularity of the T-shirt derived from the fact that if you walk up to any PA on a film, they will tell probably tell you that this is only a brief stop for them – pretty soon, they will be directing. Most of them never will.

I wasn’t even thinking about directing when I found myself as a Set PA on “The Fan”, a movie where Lauren Bacall played a movie star who is stalked by an overly-zealous fan. If the DeNiro-Snipes film comes to mind when you hear this title, don’t be alarmed – that film was remake of this one.

“The Fan” would be the only film I would ever PA on. I was never particularly good at taking orders, and as PA, everyone is your boss. Also, at 25, I felt I was a little “old” to be low man on the totem pole. As a result, I usually took better positions on lower-paying jobs than lower positions on higher paying ones.

Yes, I got to see Lauren Bacall. From what I understand, friends call her Betty. P.A.s don’t call her Betty. P.A.s don’t call her at all. Not that she was a snob. She would sometimes spend time talking to the Grips or Electrics. As a matter of fact, both those groups, which are usually filled by bigger, burlier young guys, seemed to get quite a bit of Betty’s attention. Old enough to be their mother, she still was every bit the flirt.

I once asked one of the grips if he had ever acted on her flirtations. “Are you kidding,” he said. “She slept with Bogart. How are you gonna top that?” Indeed. I think I would always expect her to ask, “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” Wasn’t a problem for me, as I was not the object of her attention.

I got the gig on “The Fan” from a recommendation of someone on “Q”, and that was pretty much how most film jobs came along. As a freelancer, looking for work became part of the job. Wednesday’s were Showbiz Magazine. Thursday was BackStage. Both listed theater and film jobs. Once I started working in film, Thursday also became Hollywood Reporter day. Picking up these magazines was like clockwork. I even knew which newsstands had BackStage on Wednesday nights.

I got work on a play stage-managing “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone” for a company called The Actors Collective. This was a really talented group of actors, most of who were currently working on soap operas and wanted an outlet to do real work. Soap operas were how they made their money. These plays were their lifeblood.

I have two memorable experiences from that company, who I stage-managed for two other plays after that first one. The first one was load in for the set. The set designer had a concept of 8 interlocking platforms. To build these, he ordered eight 3/4 inch sheets of plywood. The theater we were working in was on the 6th floor, and when these sheets – and the accompanying lumber, arrived, the only people there were the lead actor, Don, and me. Don was all of about 5’ 9”. We soon discovered that the 4x8s wouldn’t fit in the elevator. Smarter people would have sawed them in half, or waited for help. Don and I carried them up 6 flights. I still hate that set designer.

The other memory was the summer vacation we took after the first play. As I said, these actors made good money from the soap operas, and one had a summerhouse in Cape Cod. We all spent a week out there, and I loved it. It would become my favorite summer spot, and, in weird way, lead to me getting married.

There would be time before that would happen.

I was living with a choreographer/dancer named Patricia. Typical Irish girl – long red hair, freckles, the whole nine yards Typical dancer as well – woke to coffee and cigarettes. She was tiny and slim, yet always worried about her weight. She would buy a plain muffin, then cut it in half; half for breakfast, half for lunch.

Our meeting was typical as well – typical New York artist, that is. I met her at an audition. We went out on a date, and she told me she had to move out of her place – her female roommate was a jerk. We wound up at my place, had sex, and she moved in. That was fine by me.

Roommates are a way of life in Manhattan, rents being what they are. Roommates came, and roommates left. Sometimes, you were the roommate to leave. Changing jobs. Changing apartments. Changing lovers. It was all pretty much the same.

One of those Thursday mornings, we were sharing a muffin and a copy of BackStage when I saw a notice for a production manager for a production of “The Hobbit” in Pennsylvania. After I replied to the notice, I found out it was in the Lehigh Valley. A resume sent and a brief phone conversation later, and I was offered the job.

There was never any real thought of saying no because of my relationship with Pat. As a dancer, she would take a road show with a dance company if it came along, and we both understood that. In an odd way, I had a feeling that if I left, our relationship was over. It was one of those relationships that was comfortable, but with no real sparks. We were already more like friends who slept together than lovers. As it turned out, she returned to Massachusetts and took up full time choreography soon after I left, and she sublet our place for me and arranged to put what I hadn’t taken with me in storage. While I saw Pat a few times after that, I never saw that apartment again.

So, I picked up and arrived in Bethlahem, Pennsylvania. I had never been there, and waited a diner for the producers to pick me up. They were a few hours late.

The producers were a hippy couple who had been doing a puppet show of the Ring Trilogy for years. Now, they wanted to do a live, musical version of it with actors. They were the nicest people in the world, and they took me into their home – a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Fresh air, quiet, and not a subway in sight. Talk about culture shock.

While it was different, I was liking it. We mounted the show, with kids playing the hobbit roles. I still remember our Frodo, a handsome African-American kid who was all of about 14 years old. One matinee, he had a horrible show, and the kids in the audience booed him. I thought he would be devastated, and I went backstage to cheer him up. I asked if he wanted to go out between shows and get some dinner. He was still taking off his make-up, and his back was to me as he looked in the mirror. He turned around calmly and said, “Thanks, but I cant. I have a date.” I found out later that he was doing most every little girl in the play. I didn’t worry about him much after that.

During the course of that play, I met Louise. She was a RN, who lived in Bethlehem and worked weekends at a hospital in Philadelphia, She would work two double shifts so she could spend the rest of the week with her young daughter, who would spend weekends with her folks or her dad. Louise’s ex-husband. Louise was the first, and only, woman I dated that was older than me. She was in her early thirties.

Louise loved theater, but basically thought actors and theater people were too ‘flighty’. She should have trusted her instincts before we hooked up. Pretty soon, I had moved out from the farmhouse and was living with Louise. New roommate. New room.

Louise introduced me to Charlie Richter, the theater director at Muhlenberg College. Charlie was a local legend, and he deserved to be. He was nothing short of a genius. He could easily have made a name for himself as a director in New York. He was happy at Muhlenberg, where he pretty much had free reign to do what he wanted. That was a lesson that wasn’t lost on me.

Charlie and I talked a lot about avant-garde theater, a subject we could bore people with for hours, and we frequently did. He mounted a play based on the stories of the students who played themselves, much like “Chorus Line” was conceived, except it depicted where they saw themselves years forward. One actor, who was very raw, stood out. His name was John S., and he was this big jock, but with a presence that you can’t teach.

I soon learned that the woman who ran the local theater company was looking to step down. I made no attempt to hide my desire to take over, and presented a plan for the next year. It would be entitled, “The Rock and Roll Theater of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith” and feature three one-acts: Killers Head (by Shepard), Cowboy Mouth (Shepard and Smith) and a staged adaptation of Patti’s song “Horses”. Much to my delight – and the surprise of some – they bought it. Charlie’s encouragement had a lot to do with it,

I had never directed a play, and now I was going to direct three, albeit they were one-acts, with only a handful of actors who had any training, and they were students. The project certainly had some level of pretentiousness, looking back on it, but that’s the excitement of youthful projects. They have that gutsy, we-cant-fail attitude. You see it in a lot of first feature films: rough around the edges, but exciting enough to make up for it.

Having been a stage manager for a long time really came in handy. I had sat next to some really good directors through some bad rehearsals, so I knew not to be discouraged when things got tough.

One thing about a small town theater company – they have their favorites. I was told who were the best actors and actresses were, and I pretty much ignored it. I had their “best” actor, Steve, do the one-man opening play, “Killers Head” a 10 minute or so play with a guy blindfolded in an electric chair, opening with “Yeah, today’s the day I buy the horses. I’ve decided.”

For the main play, “Cowboy Mouth”, which Shepard and Smith wrote together when they lived together at the Chelsea Hotel (and they also performed together before Patti’s singing career got off the ground), I cast John S., who I saw in that play at Muhlenberg, and a butch woman who worked for Bethlahem Steel during the day. She was great. He was, well, rough, He never had to carry a play. He was a jock, and I got into the habit of starting rehearsals by running lines while he, the actress, myself and my stage manager jogged. Not being an athlete, it almost killed me, but he got to understand pace and cadence.

The plays were certainly different for the audience accustomed to “Annie Get Your Gun.” Cowboy Mouth opens with Cavale (Smith character) repeatedly cursing our Slim, and ends with a Giant Lobster and suicide. Together with “Killers Head” and “Horses” (in which a guys girlfriend waxes poetic about him being stabbed), we had our share of walkouts. Still, we got two reviews, and one of them was very favorable. The other taught me a little lesson.

In “Killers Head”, I insisted to Steve that he should let the irony of the situation play: a guy sitting in an electric chair talking about a new pickup truck and horses and the future. The one thing I told him to do was not to play nervous – don’t play the obvious.

On opening night, possibly because of nerves, possibly because he didn’t trust me, he played the whole thing shaking – just what I didn’t want. The one reviewer that hated the evening said the following “ “The only shining moment was when director (JB) had actor Steve infuse just the right level of tension as he sat awaiting his fate.”

OF course, I had visions of staying on for a while and doing many more shows. I figured if Charlie could make a go of it there, I could build a real company there, like Mamet (and later Gary Sinese) had done in Chicago, outside the glare of New York.

Alas, it was not to be. Neither was domestic bliss.

I kind of took to being “surrogate dad” to Louise’s little girl. I would pick her up at school on Monday’s before her mom got home from Philly. Mind you, I had never had a drivers license, and still didn’t. Also, I had don’t very little driving in my life – mostly taking those lessons for a license, and practicing with my dad years earlier. I failed two road tests. When I picked up her daughter and a friend one day, her daughter said, “Great. John’s driving. Its more exciting with him.”

I failed the domestic test as well. One of the girls I cast in the other one act (“Horses”) was a busty, leggy dancer. Ah, dancers (insert sigh). I couldn’t resist.

Louise was neither amused, nor understanding. Pretty soon, bags packed, it was back to New York.

“Woah Woman, oh woman, don't treat me so mean,
You're the meanest old woman that I've ever seen.
I guess if you said so
I'd have to pack my things and go.”

- The Genius of Ray Charles

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sometimes You Shoot the Bird; Sometimes the Bird Shoots You


Working in Off-Off Broadway Theater has a lot of rewards – money isn’t always one of them. This means you often find yourself in what is politely termed “support jobs”.

My on-and-off support job in the early 80s was working as a telephone interviewer for a pollster named Dick Dresner and Dick Morris. Morris you may remember from the time he was Clinton’s pollster, and then a GOP pollster, and then got caught in compromising pictures with women who were not his wife. Didn’t surprise me at all – Morris was always among the slimiest people I ever met. Dresner was a much better guy, and Anthony LaPaglia plays his character in a movie called “Spinning Boris”, which pretty accurately describes how he helped Boris Yeltsin’s political turnaround in Russia. Yeah, Dresner was that smart.

The job was great for me, because none of the people there had any interest in having a real job: actors and actresses, dancers, students, singers, and your basic non-conformists who just weren’t good at taking orders from “the man”. Eventually, I became a supervisor there, and, for a short stint when I tried my hand at a real job, Director of Operations.

My immediate boss was a woman named Barbara, who is now an ABC Consultant. Mid-forties at the time, she was a big, imposing, demanding woman. She also had a great heart. Luckily, she and I got along great, and she knew when I took the “permanent” position it wouldn’t last long. “You’ve got the job if you want it, but just tell me when you realize you don’t anymore.”

Mind you, for a “real job”, it was filled with people who hated authority. Dresner was a staunch liberal Democrat at the time, and we had people with FBI records as analysts, and a coding department run by a gay activist who used to have “leather Fridays” where the entire department would dress in S&M gear. As “real jobs” go, it was as comfortable as I was going to get.

Then, one day, I get “the call”.

“Hey, John, what are you doing?” (I wasn’t JB yet). It was Nancy J., my stage manager buddy. I begin to tell her, and she cuts me off. “ Yeah, that’s nice. Listen, I’m working on a movie now, and I need an assistant. Can you start tomorrow?”

Wow, a movie. I mean, I knew people who worked on movies, but I didn’t see myself doing it. I had never worked on one, which I explained to her.

“You never were a stage manager before I taught you, either. Its not brain surgery. I’ll show you what you need to know.”

OK, but what about my job? Nancy had an easy answer. “Quit.”

I didn’t know. Cushy job. Good salary. Benefits. Besides, I would have to talk to Barbara. How would she react?

So, next morning, I’m explaining it to Barbara, when she interrupts and calls Dick Dresner into the office. “Dick, John wants to quit to work on a movie.”

Dresner’s face lights up, he puts out his hand and says, “That’s a great opportunity. Should be fun for you.” He walks out. Barbara says, “Don’t worry. You can always come back here part time when the movie’s over.” I must have looked a little stunned.

“We never figured you’d last,” she says. “Just have fun, and call us when it’s over.”

I show up two days later (I didn’t want to really leave them high and dry). There is an empty desk with lots of paperwork on it.

“Hey Nancy” I say, greeting my old friend. Nancy gives me a big hug, then hands me a Call Sheet (assignments and times for everyone for the next day’s shooting). “I need 100 copies of these, with all the changes I’ve penciled in, and I need them collated with sides (the section of the script to be shot that day). The crew breaks in two hours, so we need to get them to set right away. After you make the copies, take them over to set yourself. Ask for the 2nd AD and give them to her.”

I didn’t know what a call sheet, sides, or a 2nd AD were, and she knew that. She also knew I’d pick it up along the way. Thus, my formal training in film began.

I was the Assistant Production Office Coordinator (APOC). Nice title, not many steps above being office PA. Lots of paper work, and this is before laptops, so lots of typing and Wite-Out.

Most of my time was spent in the office, or trading off paperwork with the 2nd AD (2nd Assistant Director) on set. Not a lot of my time was spent actually on set. Didn’t get to see much filming. I did, however, get to learn how a movie office works, and that was great experience in terms of becoming a production manager and line producer later on – better experience than I would have gotten as a PA on set.

The movie was “Q”. It was a Larry Cohen film. Larry was pretty much like Roger Corman, and did a lot of horror and genre pictures (“Its Alive”, “The Stuff” “Full Moon High”.) These weren’t art flicks, just standard stuff on a low budget.

“Q’ was about a giant bird that nests in the Chrysler Building. A two-bit, piano playing ex-con (Michael Moriorty) discovers the nest of this pre-historic bird, which has been unceremoniously eating people. He is determined to hold this information hostage from police (Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”) and David Carradine).

The first hint of the perils of working with all that movie paperwork came pretty early on.

In order to shoot in the city – any city – you need a permit. In NY, you deal with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Television. Its one of the easiest offices to work with, but there are lots of forms to fill out, and they need to know each day where and what you are shooting, as well as what parking you want hold for vehicles. If you are doing anything involving closing off streets or firearms, the police film unit must be notified.

One day, we are to shoot a scene where cops are on top of the Chrysler Building, shooting at the “bird,” whose POV is shot from a helicopter. As such, if you were to watch the scene being shot, it looks like policemen shooting at a helicopter. Even in the pre-9/11 days, this would be disconcerting.

The Chrysler Building is also in Midtown Manhattan, and because it is tall, the top is very visible for miles. Since Nancy was stuck in the office, I was the office rep on meetings with the Film office (along with the location manager, or his assistant).

On the day before the shoot, we went over all the specifics again. The scene would be shot around 2PM. We would have P.A.s stationed in various spots around the building, as usual. Local precinct, would, of course, know about it – it was the job of the Police Film Unit (then known as “TPA”) the “policemen” were, firing blanks.

Standard discussion was whether police assistance (actual cops on the scene) was requested. This is standard for when “shots are fired” so people don’t think it’s a real crime in progress. In this case, however, since all of the firing was going to be on top of the building, and not at street level, the consensus was that a few police on the street, as well as one or two on the roof with us, would cover it.

The consensus was wrong.

As with most days, it shooting ran late, and we didn’t start to shoot the scene until near 5PM, when people were getting out of work. The “shots fired” attracted people’s attention, and pretty soon, people were ducking into buildings. Others called 911, who notified precincts in the general area, some of whom (for reasons I do not understand to this day) were not aware of the filming, so, now, real cops are approaching the building with guns drawn while “gunshots” are heard above and a helicopter is flying low and “in a strange manner” (remember, we are filming from the helicopter, so the pilot is circling and maneuvering to try and get the best shot).

The end result? General panic.

We made the front page of the Daily News. The News Building is right across the street from the Chrysler Building, and their employees were among the first to call this in. The local TV news the night before ran the story. The Daily News ran the story and an editorial about how irresponsible film crews were allowed to take over the city.

The problem? We had done everything by the book. While we certainly made as many mistakes as the next film – which translates to many per day – this wasn’t one of them. Remember, the police had agreed that we didn’t need more cops assigned to the scene, and since there is no fee for it, we would have been fine if they had assigned more.

Politics then crept in. Mayor Koch, one of the targets of the article, called the producers, who came down on Nancy’s boss, Paul (the production manager and assistant director). Pretty soon, we were all called into a meeting with the Mayor. I explained to all involved from our side what happened before the meeting. Paul’s basic response was to keep quiet during the meeting and let Koch yell at us, and promise to never do it again. That’s what we did.

That was not the end of adventures with “birds”, guns and helicopters.

However, Nancy knew set was the more fun place to be, so one night, she sent me over for the end of the day’s filming. She gave me some things to do – including handing out a lot of money in small bills (nothing more than a $20) in petty cash to a few people to dispense on set. In theater, this was like the entire budget for some projects, and I was carrying it around in Central Park at night.

The scene was the last scene after a very long day for the cast and crew. It was a night shoot, the day had started around 3PM, and it was now about 4AM. In a few hours, the sun would be coming up, which meant, like it or not, the filming was over.

The scene was one where Moriarty, playing the con, tries to prove to the cops, played by Roundtree and Carradine, that he can control the bird. He cannot. The bird comes down, takes a swipe at him, he ducks at hits the ground, the cops shoot at the bird. Pretty straight forward. Once again, the helicopter shot the birds POV, and would be called in to “swoop down”.

This time, we had lots of police with us. They, too, had worked a long day, and like everyone else, they were looking forward to going home.

The helicopter comes in, swoops just like it’s supposed to, and takes off. The “cops” shoot at it. All good, right? Uh, no. Michael Moriarty doesn’t duck. The scene is no good and we have to shoot again. Paul Kurta calls in the helicopter. Again, it swoops. Again, the “cops” shoot.

Again, Michael doesn’t duck.

Larry Cohen walks up to Michael and asks him if there is a problem. As serious as he can be, Michael says he doesn’t understand his motivation for ducking.

Crew members who hear this are torn between containing their laughter, and being pissed they still have to be out there. Kurta and Cohen are worried that daylight will come, and we will lose the shot. Al Cerillo, one of the best helicopter pilots around and certainly the best in NY for years, is shouting “what’s going on” to Kurta on the walkie.

David Carradine puts down his prop rifle. He walks over to Moriarty, walks him away from Cohen, and puts his arm around him. It’s so wonderful to see an actor coming to the aid of a fellow actor.

“Michael,” he asks, “if a bird with a 20 foot wingspan was hovering over your head and reaching down to grab you, wouldn’t you fucking duck!” To make his point clearer, he grabbed Michael by the collar and began shaking him.

Actor to actor, Michael seemed to come to a newfound understanding of the scene. We barely got it in the next time around.

Oh, don’t look for the scene in the movie. It was cut.

No Time To Get Confused

“Do I get confused when I have a lot of things to rehearse? Nah. When I get confused it when I have nothing to rehearse.”

- Sparger, speaking to imaginary boy (Kennedy’s Children, by Robert Patrick)

Once I got my first taste of working in theater, I threw myself into it head-long.

As stage manager, I would have one play in rehearsals during the day, and be in performance with another one at night. In my free time, I’d do a shift at the radio station, and go on a voice-over audition (something I picked up from my co-workers at the radio station).

Generally, I could put together enough small checks to support my way of life, which wasn’t elaborate, but did include living in Manhattan, which was never cheap.

Late in 1979, I began studying with Judith Malina and the Living Theater. Some of you may recognize Judith as an actress – she played the little dark-haired woman who dances with Robin Williams in “Awakenings,” she is in Household Saints, was the original Grandma in the first “Addams Family” movie, and, more recently, played the nun who was Paulie’s real mother in the Sopranos (“I was a bad girl.”) Judith and her deceased husband Julian Beck started the Living Theater Company, who was real pioneers in avant-garde theater. By the time I studied with her, Julian was dead and she was married to theater partner Hannon Resnikov.

Working with Judith and Hannon just cemented the idea that I wanted to do non-traditional theater, and I wound up running in circles where I got a lot of that sort of work, both as a stage manager and, at times, as assistant director.

It was my relationship with Judith and with Nancy J. (the stage manager) that led me to two shows that really influenced my path.

In 1980, President Carter reinstated the draft. Judith was (and I imagine still is) an anarchist, and she was invited to be part of the protests that would be taking place in Washington. The idea of doing a revival of Hair came up, and Judith introduced me to Jim Rado and Gerry Rangi, the creators of Hair who also played its original leads (Berger and Claude).

The original “Hud” in the play was choreographing, and a crazy guy named Richard was directing. I was offered the job of production managing, which meant I oversaw the stage management but also did things like arranged for our travel to DC, our performances in NY, kept the books, cut the checks, etc. This would be a foundation for the work I would later do producing theater, and, eventually, doing similar jobs in film.

Hair was a blast. Rado and Ragni clearly didn’t just write Berger and Claude, they WERE Berger and Claude. Rado (Claude) was a nice, middle-class blonde kid who was quiet and all love-and-peace. Ragni (Berger) was an inspired madman. The guy who played Hud was a flaming queen. It made for interesting rehearsals, with lots of arguing, then reconciliation, and not a small amount of smoking, Both Rado and Ragni hated the recently released film, and were determined to get the play back to its “roots.”

We had a lot of young actors, and, to be honest, the production wasn’t very good. The highlight of the NY part of the production was when we lost out Berger near the end of rehearsals. We held auditions, and saw hundreds of people. If you remember Berger, he;s supposed to be like an Abbie Hoffman on overdrive.

In walks this guy, who, if you need a mental image, think Radar O”Reilly: short, wire-rimmed glasses, SHORT hair, suit and tie. No one thought we would cast him, but since everyone had waited so long, we were determined to let everyone audition.

“What role are you reading for.” I asked. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t at the wrong audition.

“Berger,” he said. People on my side of the desk chuckling under their breath.

“And what would you like to sing for us,” I asked.

“Aquarius”. Dear God, no. This was the answer we hated. It was the most popular tune from the show, it showed the least since it was a tribe (chorus) song, and everyone who wasn’t well prepared sang it.

I nodded to the piano player, who played the intro. “Radar” (as I will call him – I really don’t remember his name) begins the song swaying gently back and forth in his corporate attire, much as Pat Boone might.

“When the moon is in the Seventh House,
and Jupiter aligns with Mars…..”

He does the whole first verse like this, and then, at the end of the verse

“…this is the dawning of…”

At this point, he lets fly with a really powerful belt (voice), jumps up on the table, and proceeds to do the rest of the song barefoot and stripping down to his boxers.

He knew he was wrong for the role, and decided he was going to put us on and audition for the company anyway. It took a while before we all stopped laughing, and before he left, we welcomed him into the tribe (but not, of course, as Berger).

The highlight of the production, though, was DC. We are all on chartered buses – the whole company was on one bus. We were scheduled to perform during the protest at some point: there was a make-shift stage, and thousands and thousands of people. I was 23 years old at the time, and most of the cast was younger. The cast was a little awe-struck, and very hyped. There I was with a clipboard and my notes and my bag with all my preparations, trying to make sure everything went smoothly.

Two of our producers were a brother and sister who were radical wanna-bes They were annoying as hell, and they kept pumping the cast up more, much to my chagrin. They were thinking Woodstock – I was thinking Kent State.

Seriously. Its not like I thought anyone was going to be shot, but Kent State was very clear in my mind, and I didn’t want any of these kids intimidating anyone.

One of the organizers jumped on the bus. When he said his last name, I asked him if he had a brother in NY (it was not a common last name). Indeed, his brother was a good friend of mine from the radio station (and is still a good friend to this day). This guy would later become an immigration lawyer who had an influence on my life (more on that in a later chapter).

So, we get onstage, the amplification is terrible, we do our two or three songs, a few of the people in the crowd listen, and its almost time for us to get off the stage. The two idiot producers (they were not the main producers) jump up, grab the microphone, and start with stupid “fuck the man” style stuff. Now, our kids are more pumped up, and as one of the girls in the troop in coming off stage, she gets in the face of a DC cop who is basically just trying to direct them.

I see this and immediately put myself between them so she doesn’t do anything stupid. As is instinctive in potential “fight” situations, I put my arms up in both directions to keep them apart. The arm that kept her away was cool. The arm that wound up in the chest of the DC cop was not. That arm was shortly joined with the other one by way of handcuffs, as I was led off.

Thankfully, Jeff’s brother (the organizer) had been in the area, saw what happened, and would up getting me out of lock-up. I convinced both the cop and his superiors that I had no intention of hitting them, and, thankfully, charges weren’t filed, but it was not fun being in lock-up during a demonstration with people who were actually looking to get locked up.

The other play that influenced me during this period was a play called Chucky’s Hunch. Once again, Nancy was the stage manager, and she wanted me to ASM. At this point, I was already moving up, but she convinced me that this was a good opportunity, and the pay was actually better than some of the SM gigs I was being offered – and chances of getting arrested were minimal.

Chucky’s Hunch was a one-man show that was originally performed at Theater for New Audiences in New York, and then at the Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row. (where I took over as stage manager after Nancy left). A good –and accurate – review can be found at this link:

The play was a one-man show, and the last paragraph of the review tells you why this was such a great experience for me:

Of course, ''Chucky's Hunch'' is most of all an actor's vehicle, and Mr. O'Connor rides it for all that it is worth. This performance - presumably created in collaboration with the director, Elinor Renfield - is the best work I've seen this actor do. Speaking in a gin-sodden, sandpaper voice that occasionally erupts into mirthless, private laughter, Mr. O'Connor keeps Chucky's past and present in perfect focus. As the character drifts off into sad defeat and mad bouts of panic, his dancing eyes always allow us to see the pugnacious, swaggering and obnoxious hipster that Chucky once was. Most important, he manages to avoid any slobbering self-pity - even when, at the very end, Miss(Rochelle) Owens's script declines into conventional mawkishness. ''Chucky's Hunch'' may be a small play about a small life, but attention must be paid.

Kevin was, to steal Aykroyd’s eulogy of Belushi, “a good man but a bad boy”. He won multiple Obie Awards, and if you mentioned him to any NY actor or stage director at the time, they would tell you what a good actor he was. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel, which was perfect for him.

The good man would often act in the student films of his acting students for free as a favor, would coach them up for an audition for nothing, would do anything for a friend. The good man was easily one of the best actors and stage directors and acting teachers I have ever known. The good man would give you 50 cents if he were down to his last dollar.

The bad boy slept with some of his female acting students, hit on everything that moved, was often “kept” by older women who loved his company and would pay bills, and drank like a fish. I worked with Kevin for years after this, and he never showed up to performance or rehearsal drunk – never. But his well-earned reputation for drinking other times had developed a life of its own, to the point where people thought he worked drunk.

Let me share one Kevin story before allowing this period of my theater life to come full circle.

Years later, Kevin was directing a play that I was producing. We were auditioning, and this guy came in and did Frankie from Leonard Melfi’s “Birdbath” as his audition piece. “Birdbath” is the play “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” got its source material from, and Kevin had won awards for creating Frankie.

So, this guy starts, and he is awful. Unlike the “Hair” audition, this guy wasn’t faking – he was bad. It was an open audition, which meant we had lots of people and were always behind. I had turned over the actor’s picture and was ready to say “next” when Kevin started giving him notes. Kevin spent ten minutes working on the audition piece with this guy. Hey, maybe Kevin saw something I missed.

When he left, I asked if we were casting him. “Are you kidding” Kevin said, with his gruffest voice. “He was awful.”

“Then why did we just waste ten minutes with him?” I asked. Kevin looked at me a little puzzled. “We did it to make him better.” It seemed obvious to Kevin – we helped because we could. The sense of mentorship would stay with me to this day, and that theme comes up later in my life with a producer and production manager in film.

Full circle? Oh, yeah.

We did “Chucky’s Hunch” with two other one-act plays at the Harold Clurman. One of those plays was “Birdbath,” with Kevin and his original co-star, Barbara Eda Young. The director was Tom O’Horgan, who was also the original director of “Hair”. I got to work with Tom again after that play, but it was fun to exchange stories from my experience with “Hair’ with Tom’s experience with originally bringing it to the stage.

The best moment of that production also influenced me in how I dealt with the artistic process, always being willing to bring up problems even when people didn’t want to hear it. Sometimes, it cost me work. Other times, however, I formed very strong bonds with people who respected that I had their best interests at heart.

Kevin was a second cousin of Tennessee Williams, and Williams came to one performance with his “assistant” (who, not so coincidentally, was a very pretty young man in his early 20s). The producer took everyone out to lunch, and I was invited. I should point out that after ordering my lunch, I didn’t open my mouth again except to eat.

Williams ordered a bottle of Jack, which he finished most of during the meal.

At the time, he had “Clothes from a Summer Hotel” on Broadway. It had just been seriously panned. The director was a long-time collaborator of his, as were a few of the actors. People at the lunch avoided discussion of the play, but it came up eventually.

It was at that point that Williams reflected on how he didn’t like being treated like an icon, and would have appreciated feedback.

“If it was so bad,” he said, “why didn’t anybody tell me.”

This phrase would stick with me into film, and went a long way as to why I never felt awkward telling a director bad news. I learned that it was the responsibility of the people around the artist to be honest, especially when it is difficult.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Come In Out Of the Rain

“I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried." I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, "Hey, man, I saw your play... what happened?"

“I don’t want my plays done at the Uris Theater. I want my plays done at some little place in the Village where the only people who see it are people who come in out of the rain.”

Jeff Slater (Bill Murray) – Tootsie

My career in theater would have made Jeff proud.

There is so much of Tootsie that resonates with my theatrical career, starting with the birthday party for Michael.

Living in Manhattan is expensive, and most of us struggling artists always had roommates, who were usually other struggling artists.

As fate would have it, I lived in a triplex (3 bedrooms on three floors, connected by a spiral staircase). My roommates were a gay woman and a gay guy – both actors. The sexual preference thing worked out perfectly, since there was absolutely no sexual tension in the apartment – none of us were interested in the other. One of our favorite times were our parties – we would invite all our friends, and then watch the wrong people try to hook up with the wrong people (i.e. – My straight male friends trying to hit on her lesbian friends; his gay male friends trying to hit on my straight male friends; her lesbian friends trying to hit on my straight female friends) .

Joe had an audition coming up where he had to present a scene, meaning he needed a partner. He asked me. I had no acting training, and no interest in acting.

“I need someone to do this with me, and my regular partner cant make it. Besides, you work in radio, that’s like performing.” He was clutching at straws. Desperate isn’t pretty, but I couldn’t really say no.

We go to the audition, and it goes well enough. A day or two later, I come home and Joe says : “We got it.” I offer my congratulations, not paying attention to the word “we.” We? Yes, they wanted me as well. Not wanting to be an actor was one thing. Ego was something else. I was in.

The play was done at a downstairs theater in the Village called the Colonnades, directly across the street from the Joe Papp’s Public Theater. I don’t know about coming in out of the rain, but a good deal of our audience were people who couldn’t get tickets to the cutting edge shows at the Public Theater.

Across the street, there were plays by David Henry Wang and Eric Bogosian and Sam Shepard and Eric Overmeyer and Richard Foreman and all the emerging great dramatists. Across the street they could see a young Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, Diane Lane, and Mary Beth Hurt.

At the Colonnades, they got me, Joe, and a play about Michael Servetus.

My theatrical debut was a play about the conflict between Michael Servetus and John Calvin. Servetus was a Spanish theologian who originally joined Calvin as part of the Protestant Reformation, but then broke with Calvin when he felt Calvin’s heart was “darkened by hate.”

I forget the name of the play, but it was translated and adapted from its original Eastern European by a husband/wife team who were incredibly bright. She was a fine director, and the two leads were great. The original play was almost five hours. They “trimmed” it down to a svelte three hours and forty-five minutes, much of which were theological debates between Servetus and Calvin based on their letters. On the “intellectually too deep” scale, the play made “A Man for All Seasons” look like “Rambo”. The comparison continues, as Mr. Servetus meets the same fate as Thomas More.

The Variety reviewer said he felt 'like he had sat through the Protestant reformation.'

It was an ensemble cast of almost 30 (know you know why I got cast – they needed bodies!). I played three roles with multiple costume changes, my favorite of which was a singing bartender who got up on the bar and led a bunch of radical Protestants in a song of protest.

It was also mid-summer, the air conditioning was bad, and I had to under-dress (keep one costume underneath another) to make a costume change, which meant I was dressed for Siberia in a 95 degree theater for about 45 minutes of the play.

For someone more stable, this might have been a traumatic experience that drove them from the theater. However, two things happened that actually cemented my love of theater during the brutal run.

First, in my long span between scenes, I picked up another actor’s book: The Empty Space, by Peter Brook. The book opened my eyes to everything theater could be. It was more than Broadway and fancy sets and elaborate costumes. It could be something raw and honest and powerful. This set as tone me, and the type of theater I subsequently trained and worked in.

The other event was I met a great stage manager, Nancy Juliber. Nancy was a pint-sized bundle of energy, who had become a stage manager when she was out of work and her roommate (a dancer) told her that her dance company needed a stage manager – and they were paying. Nancy lied about her resume and had stage-managed many plays since.

This played right into a dichotomy in my life. I’m a Capricorn, and between that and my Catholic High School training, there was a lot of organizer in me. On the other hand, there was a lot of flakey artist in me as well. Stage manager was a perfect blend.

Nancy and I became friends, and she taught me how to stage manager. I loved it. Even the minutia of creating a production book and marking the stage and timing scenes was great. Better yet, I got to spend all the time with the director, and learn what they were thinking and how they were preparing.

When the play was over, I worked as ASM for Nancy’s next play. I showed up the first day, and she asked me time a scene. I told her I had forgotten my watch at home. She sent me home and told me to come back tomorrow properly prepared. It’s a story too many of my P.A.s have heard over the years, but it set the tone for the level of perfection and professionalism that you were to bring to any project, regardless of how big or how small.

The years from 1979 (when I did the first play) though the mid-80s would wind back and forth between radio, film and theater, but mostly theater.

Radio Days

I knew what “Saturday Night Fever” was about, and it wasn’t disco, and it wasn’t dancing. It was about getting to Manhattan.

If you grow up in the boroughs of NYC, or just over the bridge in Jersey, you fall into one of two categories – you go “into the city” on weekends, but you wouldn’t want to live with those crazy people, or the idea of staying where you are is killing you and you have to get out of the burbs and live in Manhattan. I was the latter.

So, I turned down a full scholarship to Fordham in the Bronx where I grew up to take a half-scholarship for only one year to go to New York University. The coolest teacher I had in senior year of HS was this priest who taught psychology and had gone to NYU. I wasn’t going to become a priest, but the rest sounded great. I was going to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist – I’d figure it out later.

I always loved to write, and my first week at NYU I went to the 9th floor of the student center to join the newspaper – sounded cool. Only, they weren’t in. They happened to share the same floor with the radio station, and this guy walked up to me and asked if I wanted to join the radio station. It was cooler than the newspaper, anyway, and I’d have more to do – and right away. I told him I didn’t really have the voice for radio, I just wanted to write.

“No problem. You could write the news.” It was 1976, and Woodward and Bernstein were still big heroes. I thought this could be cool. When could I start?

He looked at his watch. “We have a 4 o’clock newscast. Can you start now?”

The salesmen was the station GM, Richard Roth, who is now the UN correspondent for CNN. Richard influenced me over the years in more ways than one – he was a big horse player, and used to have high-stakes “marble races” at his apartment. It was something he had constructed with nails and rubber bands when he was a kid, and it had fans over the years who would bet as much as $10 or $20 a race on a “marble”. More on that later.

So, the vision I had for my future was reshaped forever. See, I thought that being a psychiatrist was all about Freud and Jung and cool stuff about the mind. They never told me about med school and statistics. By my third stats class, I was lost.

Radio, on the other hand, was cool. I worked on the news, but soon got into music, too. I did recorded features – my first one was on Genesis with Peter Gabriel, I think. I’d say they were sophomoric, but I was only a freshman, so they weren’t that good.

Soon, I got the hang of it – and it was addictive. Like many people at the radio station, I was spending more time at the station, and less in class. I got an afternoon music slot, and then became the program director. It was great, but if I wasn’t going to flunk out, I needed a new major. I looked through the course guide, and there it was, like a big neon light with a come-hither finger saying “C’mon in.” Dramatic Literature.

Let me get this straight: all I have to do is read plays and write reports on them? I could do that in my sleep. Anything below a 95 in English in HS was a bad grade for me. I loved it and I was good at it – and no statistics! I was in.

The short story is that the Drama Lit got me into plays, and that got me into film, but first a little about the radio days. They were crazy times, but this is just a quick summary.

It was the beginning of the punk movement, and if I wasn’t at CBGBs, I was at the Mudd Club or the Bottom Line (a more traditional club”. I soon produced our weekly live series, “From the Bottom Line” (original title, huh?”)

I got in good with the record company people, and because I was receptive to new music, I got in everywhere.

My first on-air interview was James Cotton, one of Muddy Waters harp players who had struck out on his own. I asked him a long, convoluted question about the evolution from blues to rock to disco. The entire rest of my interview was going to be based on his answer to this socially-important and powerful question.

I lost him halfway through the question, and he said, “Times change. People change.” The rest of the interview didn’t go too well.

I interviewed David Byrne before their first album, when they only had “Love Goes to Building on Fire” as a single out. He hated being referred to as punk, and the term “new wave” wasn’t out there yet. He talked about how McDonalds represented the proletariat. He talked about art. Tina and Chris sat on the floor during the interview like disciples listening to Jim Jones.

While interviewing The Runaways Cherry Currie started flirting with my engineer and wouldn’t answer my questions, and Joan Jett kept blowing bubbles,

I once set up Lyle Mays (keyboard player with Pat Metheny) with one of our interns, and had to run back and forth between the two because he was too shy to ask her out.

All this almost led me to a paying job working as Northeast Promotions Director at A&M Records. Remember the Paul Schaeffer character in “Spinal Tap” who screws up the in-store. He tries to convince the band its not their fault, and offers them to kick him to make themselves feel better? Well, the job was much better than that, but just as crazy.

The scene in Spinal Tap when the manager has the cricket bat – that’s real. The guy was a manager for the A&M group Squeeze. The lead singer locked himself in my office right before a lunchtime meet with all the big NYC radio guys. I was dying. Well, then manager yells into the room “you coming out, or am I coming in?” Expletives were exchanged, at which time the manager proceeded to try to break the door down with said bat. Thankfully, the door opened before it was complete cinders.

I was convinced I would be in the record business. I was dating a girl named Sheila, a childhood model whose mother was a neurotic former model herself and her father was a co-founder of a major record company.

Things changed when Sheila and I broke up. I started dating a girl who worked publicity for Columbia Records – it was all very incestuous. Our dates were known as “Plus Ones” because, when they would leave tickets, it would be “JB +1” in order to leave open the possibility of bringing anyone at the last minute.

Cathy, (the publicity girl) and I would often have to see each other after we each attended different gigs to support our groups. One night, we had the rare night when we both had no gig to go to, and we had what I hoped would be a “normal” date with no shop talk. I made a point of this to her, and after about three words of “how are you” she goes into some new act they signed. The rest of the date was a blur – I just knew I was bored with the whole business, but didn’t know what I was going to do.

It was not long after that I found myself in theater.

Living in My Oblivion - A Foreword

“Every time I finish a novel, I decide its time to write my autobiography. Then, I start to get bored, and I lie about the people in my life. Then, I get more bored, and I decide to lie about the people around me. Pretty soon I have a novel.” John Irving.


I'm not so sure that my life is all that interesting, but since I cannot see it with any objectivity, I figure I will just put my experiences out there and hope that a morsel here and there are entertaining, informative, or at least insightful.

As I began approaching this, more and more of my past came back. I kept going further and further back to be able to give some perspective. I skidded to a halt at the beginning of college, since this is really where the path begins.

When I write, I spend a lot of time editing. Online posts are one thing, but if I was going to do a series of articles, I had to make sure they were worth your time reading.

I first thought of just doing interesting anecdotes from movies I worked on, but as I started putting it together, it began to dovetail with something I’ve been working on – a book about a life making indie/low budget films.

Here is where we get into the problem.

As the quote above suggests, when approaching something like this, my biggest fear is a term like “autobiography”. In the me-crazed, reality-television, myspace/youtube world we live in, the idea seems to be that not only are each of us entitled to Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes, but also a blog, a website, and maybe a movie-of-the-week.

Cristine Vachon wrote a great book about doing what I do – line producing and producing films. Its called “Shoot to Kill;” inspired by the name of her production company, Killer Films. It’s perfect and brilliant. I always thought: “gee, she’s done more than I have, who cares about what I’ve done?”

My fear here was that, really, why is what I do more interesting than what anyone else does? Sure, these stories are funny to people I work with, but will people here care? Is it pretentious of me to think they will?

The only way I can do this is to put things in perspective, so some chapters may not be as funny or interesting as some of the better stories I’ve shared. I also have a brevity problem – but if know me, you know that.

I hope the overall effect is one that will not be about me, but about a way of life, with some social history for some of the younger people I have the pleasure of working with. I lived through a lot of interesting times working in film, theater and the music industry in NY, and it starting college radio at the beginning of the punk movement.

Where there is name-dropping, hey, these are not brag posts, Anyone who does what I do has worked with name actors, directors , etc. It just goes with the territory. It doesn’t mean these people are my best friends or I get seats to the Oscars (or even the Indie Spirit Awards). As Joan Cusack says in “Working Girl,” : “Sometimes when I’m at home I sing in my underwear. It doesn’t make me Madonna.”

To those who read it and think “eh”, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The title – Living in My Oblivion – comes from the title of the movie that most closely represents the films I’ve worked on – Living in Oblivion. If you’ve seen it, no explanation is needed. If you haven’t, it chronicles the adventures on a low-budget film. Way too much rings true, even where it is exaggerated.