کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 34


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Agnes Nixon and Doug Marland, who created Loving, were nice people. The operating producer, the nuts-and-bolts producer, a man named Joe Stuart, was not. He would make young female actors weep. It was: You’re getting fat. You need to do your roots. You’re breaking out. But it wasn’t just women. Anyone summoned to Joe’s office left shaken. Joe rarely showed himself on set or in the halls. You saw him, it was almost always in his office, and it was almost always bad news. He was the grim reaper of Loving.

We were in the second week of shooting the show. We’d done eight shows already and I was still without a contract. I’d been featured in the two-hour premiere, so they couldn’t easily replace me with another actor. It would be confusing to the audience. So I was in a rare position as a fairly inexperienced actor: I had leverage. And my agents were trying to use it to get me more money.

I finished getting my notes after the dress rehearsal. Seven minutes before they called “places” to shoot the show, I was in the makeup room. Joe appeared in the doorway and asked to speak to me. Gulp. He took me aside. “We’re having a difficult time finalizing your contract.” He told me that the network’s upper management was advising him to cut bait and recast the role. I was shocked. He continued, “Do with that information what you will, and have a good show.” And with that he turned and walked away.

Have a good show. He was basically holding a knife to my throat.Have a good show. I was so intimidated that it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was all calculated. He didn’t want to pay me a dime more than he had to, so he was trying to get in my head and make me worry about my job security.

It worked. I went to take my place on the set. My heart was pounding. I didn’t want to be fired. I got through my scene distractedly. I called my manager the moment we were done. “I just got warned,” I said. “Close the deal. Wherever you are. Close it. I don’t want to have that happen again.”

My manager said he thought we could get more.

“Close the deal,” I said.

I was on the set, trying to work under duress in the real world. Managers and agents and sometimes writers operate in the theoretical world. The real world is a pressure cooker. I couldn’t endure this again. I was sure of that.

I ended up getting $600 per episode and then an automatic bump of $50 per show for the second season—the sweetest deal of any actor on the show. It wasn’t because of my talent; it was only because I was hired last. I had leverage.

Joe didn’t love that; he resented me for it. But after our run-in at the beginning, I rarely saw him. He never said anything to me. He was not a friendly guy. He didn’t speak. He wanted to intimidate and be that man everyone feared.

Every thirteen weeks the producers had an option to renew each actor’s contract. In the year and three quarters I was there, attrition was high. We’d see auditioning actors in the hallway with scripts in their hands and we’d try to see the names on the scripts so we knew our fates. If the actor resembled you, it was, Uh-oh. A look-alike. It’s gonna be me next. I’m getting fired. We got into the habit of calling the show Leaving because so many people were canned.

Characters came and went. Patricia Kalember, the gifted actor who played my former fiancée, Merrill, was fired with no warning. I blinked and someone else, some hardworking colleague, had been dumped on the side of the road. No warning. No reason. Just . . . gone. I made it quite a ways. I had one more thirteen-week cycle before my two-year contract was up. My manager, a wonderfully supportive man named Leonard Grant, called and asked what I wanted to do. I said, “I like having a job. I’m enjoying myself. Learning a lot.”

“It’s velvet handcuffs,” Leonard said. “You’ve got to get out of daytime, or else you’ll wake up and it’s twenty years later and it’s all you’ve ever done.”

He was right. We agreed I’d give notice. After two years I was done. I made a plan to ride out two more weeks and then we’d let them know.

My character was married at that time to Edie, played by Lesley Vogel. Nice woman. Pretty, though in the year we worked closely together I never saw her without makeup. It could have been a complex shoot early in the morning, and she’d show up with a full face on.

On a Friday, Lesley and I got called into Joe’s office.

“Have a seat,” he said.

We sat.

“We’ve greatly appreciated your contribution to the show. Story-wise, we’re going in a different direction. We won’t be renewing your contracts.”

He stood up, meaning: conversation over. It had been ten seconds, maybe. I looked over at Lesley. Her face was frozen in shock. We stood. We’d barely sat on those chairs before we were up. Because it happened so fast, it was almost as if it didn’t happen. I stood there. I shook his hand and said, “Thank you.”

It’s like if you fall, and someone sees you, and you cover your embarrassment with, I’m okay, I’m okay. It’s not until later that you really assess the damage—your skinned knee, your bruised rib. In that office, I was punched in the face, and he didn’t even bother to close the door first. He fired me, and I actually THANKED him. Damn. I wish I hadn’t done that.

I walked into hair and makeup. I hadn’t taken my makeup off yet. I saw my good friend John O’Hurley. (We were both married to the same woman, Lesley, on Loving.) He was there, munching on an apple. He took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I got fired,” I said.

He dropped the apple. “What?”

I told him what Joe said, exactly. We’re going in a different direction. A way of saying, “We’re going away from you.”

I had tickets to see the Arthur Miller play After the Fall that night. I went, but I wasn’t really there. When anyone since has asked me how I liked the play, I say: I have no idea. Despite very much wanting to see Frank Langella and Dianne Wiest work, I only heard muffled sounds of actors on a stage. Even the cruel irony of the play’s title was lost on me at the time. I was inside my devastation. I wasn’t expecting to get fired, but it wasn’t unexpected. We did call it Leaving, after all. But that was lost on me, too.

I licked my wounds in private that Saturday. I was filled with self-pity. Woe is me. I looked out the window, forlorn. I was fired. I thought I was getting pretty good, but obviously I’m not good because I just got fired. I was getting angry. I was feeling terrible about myself. I had a couple of drinks. I brushed my teeth and I looked at my face and frowned and thought: Poor baby. You got fired . . . poor baby.

And then I remembered the conversation with my manager. I was going to leave anyhow. Two more weeks and I was giving notice. So why did I feel this way?

It was sort of like I was going to break up with a girl and she beat me to the punch. I didn’t want to be the one on the receiving end. I wanted to be the one in control. I wanted to be the one who knocked.

It was my ego. My ego had been hurt.

The next morning I said: You have to get over yourself, go do something. I bought fifteen rolls of film and shoved them into my camera bag. I wanted to get out of my head. I walked into Central Park with my Nikon—but barricades were everywhere. The stupid New York City Marathon was under way. And now all these people were in my way and I wasn’t going to be able to take pictures of the park!

I started snapping anyhow. The first picture I took was of these two fat cops. They were huge. A sign for the runners was posted above them. It read: MEN THIS WAY, WOMEN THAT WAY. I took that picture. It was a pretty good picture.

The motorcade carrying Mayor Koch and the race organizers and VIPs passed. The racers on wheelchairs flew by, and then the elite runners. A guy with one leg crossed the finish line on crutches. An able-bodied man collapsed twenty feet before the finish line, and a couple of others picked him up and dragged him across. The scene was moving, heroic. I got chills.

I was there for six hours, taking photos of every kind of person. Each one of them had toiled and trained and endured. And finished.

I forgot my troubles. I forgot to eat. An old woman crossed the finish line. She was eighty-three if she was a day. She ran twenty-six miles. Twenty-six miles! That was the distance from Long Beach to Catalina. How could anyone manage that? Let alone dudes in hula skirts and teens in funny antennae and a guy in full clown makeup and a waiter carrying a tray. Triumphant. Amazing.

What the hell? How did they do this? I could never do this.

I could never do this? I heard myself admit failure before I’d even tried. Another elderly runner hobbled across the finish line, arms overhead, victorious. I was twenty-seven. If I put my mind to it, why couldn’t I do it?

I couldn’t think of a good reason. I vowed to myself, “Okay. Next year I’m going to be in this race.” That was that. I set a goal for myself. Without it, I might have pouted for weeks. Now nothing was going to get in my way, except maybe actually having to do it.

I planned to sublet my apartment in New York and go back to LA for TV-pilot season (January–March), the time of year when producers cast new pilots for series that will, with luck, air in the fall.

Before I left New York, I was invited to the Loving holiday party, and I went to say good-bye to all my friends from the show.

At the party, I turned around and there was Joe, wearing an expensive suit and a smug look. He was standing there with his wife. He furrowed his brow and said, “Bryan, I thought you’d be long gone by now, back to Los Angeles.”

Not: Happy Holidays. Not: Sorry about the way things turned out.

I said, “Fuck off, Joe.” Well, that’s what I wanted to say. What I actually said was, “Nope, still enjoying the city! Merry Christmas.”

Oh well. At least I didn’t thank him.

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