It will skew the pitch of this essay if I begin with how you know me, but suffice it to say that every Christmas the film in which I played my most celebrated role is shown on television in a more-or-less continuous loop. I joined the Screen Actors Guild when I was 7 years old; at the age of 9, I was nominated for Best Newcomer by the Rottenberg Academy, which I am told is a super-prestigious cultural institution in Germany. I live mainly on residual checks from these early successes. This has allowed me the freedom in more recent years to focus on the kinds of independent projects that have lower budgets than my agent would like but that tend to do well when it comes to awards. My latest effort, “Major Hole,” recently won something called the Derek Prize for Best Picture. The period of time that I am concerned with here is my infamous “rebellious” year, when I went off the grid, so to speak, defied my parents and lived like a Bohemian in New York City. Recently, a message board posting took me by surprise by mentioning some outlaw I apparently knew named Manon LaRohe who supposedly “saved my life.” This was a name that I must admit rang absolutely zero bells until I Googled a photograph. Ladies and gentlemen, you will not think it condescending of me to note one of the trials of fame, the way it endlessly recapitulates one’s life and thereby distorts it beyond the already maladroit interventions of memory. Yes, yes, I can hear you weeping for me. A foolish thing, to invoke one’s celebrity in the name of sympathy, I know. But the fact of the matter is, the average actor in the average year meets more people than the average civilian does in a lifetime. As my wife, a gorgeous and patient woman, would say, “Get to the point, dear. You’re hopelessly diffuse without a script.” I am hardly myself without a script; like all born thespians, my true self is guised with borrowed words. Nevertheless. Given the invidiousness with which this period of my life has been tarnished, I feel compelled to step out from behind the mask as it were in order to set a few things straight. I suppose I shall have to begin at the beginning.
* * *
The road to fame was not, in my case, the traditional one. I guess no one’s is. In my case, acting school was mooted by the success I’d mistakenly believed was the primary goal of such institutions. When the Holiday Film Which Need Not Be Named was released, I had performed on stage exactly once. I had no “technique.” Whatever skill I possessed was inseparable from my precocity and had as much to do with contract negotiations as it did with performance. I found myself succumbing to a peculiarly Hollywood disease, a kind of itchiness around the area of talent. The setup to which I was accustomed involved half-pages of dialogue that were easily learned in one’s makeup chair, delivered usually to stand-ins from the kinds of medium shots where you didn’t need to decide what to do with your hands. With craft services always nearby, it was easy enough to believe you were merely playing charades at a particularly well-catered surprise party. Invariably, the sense that we had it too easy out here in the land of sun and surgery was mitigated by a complementary movieland ailment, the feeling that we had no idea what was going on. This latter sickness is by far the more prevalent, afflicting everyone from studio executives to script supervisors. It is a terrible disease. There is no known cure. I am personally familiar with at least one confirmed suicide related to it. I believe it has something to do with the freeways, because it usually strikes while one is driving. There you are zooming along and it hits you: “Something is going on. I don’t know what it is, but they do, and they are not telling me.” It is at this point that the first disease to which I alluded, the itchiness, starts up again. For this disease, there is a cure, or at least we like to think there is. The cure is called New York. New York, of course — and as this essay clarifies — is also a disease. The cure for it is called Hollywood. Unfortunately Hollywood is where you can catch this other disease whose cure is New York, so there we are.
I should like to orient East Coasters to the New York City of the West Coast; that is, to the idea of New York as it exists in the mind of someone from California. You will not be surprised that this idea is almost entirely formed by the city’s depiction in movies, combined with a very misleading understanding of “downtown” gathered by visits to places like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Oakland. When I pictured New York, I must have envisioned something like Wilshire and Fairfax, only with more people walking around, a shootout in progress and some meatball saying “fuggedaboutit” while my wallet was nicked. For the Californian, New York is all skyscrapers and immigrants. And New York in the 1990s was those things with more than a soupçon of danger. Most of the New York movies of this time were shot in Toronto or on the kind of suspiciously abbreviated backlot street that is tellingly free of trash and unionized goons. The native Angelino doesn’t realize how white and Midwestern, how eerily Mormon California is until he descends on Manhattan. For me, the experience was doubly disorienting because I had to put more than my usual effort into avoiding recognition since I wasn’t normally accustomed to so many faces coming at me at eye level outside of an indoor mall. It helped that I was in pretty terrible shape. I’d lost the porcelain veneer of one of my lower incisors somewhere outside Reno and then there was all this weight I’d gained because of the medication my ex-manager insisted I take, these horse pills that made my face, according to one of my more vicious “fans,” “look like someone had fucked with the aspect ratio of one of your shitty old movies.” Since the point of my relocation to New York was the kind of authenticity that can only be attained by means of good old Broadway sawdust and Equity minimums, I arrived in the city not by jet or private car or even by train, no, no. In the 68 hours I spent in the poorly chosen back row of a cross-country Peter Pan weirdo-mobile, I had plenty of time to contemplate what I suppose was America, and deteriorate into a condition in which the general public would have a great deal of trouble placing me, even without my hobo smile.
I alighted at the Port Authority Bus Terminal smack-dab in what is known as the “Theatre District,” fat and tired and untanned. I wanted to “hail a cab” — I was eager to do my first New York thing — so I toted my luggage out to what I now know is Eighth Avenue and started yelling “taxi!” with my hand outstretched like a kind of disoriented Nazi. Little did I know there was like a procedure for this sort of thing that I had abridged, a specific bus terminal taxi queue and so forth but I was like, fuck it, I’m walking. I was 19 years old. The year was 1999. Keep both of those things in mind.
When I say that I am a celebrity, I obviously don’t mean on the order of Bob Culp or Andre the Giant. I’m not trying to give myself airs. Nor am I unaware of the so-to-speak “rap” on me, that I had my moment in the late ’80s and it was downhill from there, yada yada. My impressive and gorgeous wife, who is not industry herself and whom I saw on the elliptical the other day at the gym I didn’t know we both still belong to, refers, in an arched-eyebrow sort of way, to my detractors as “realists.” I get it. I really do. I had a bad few years, a bad decade even. But it didn’t start in the late ’80s, and it wasn’t because Leroy McNair had his hand in the till (although he certainly must have, which is why, I suppose, he’s still in the brig). No, things really started to go south for me in 1999 when I had finally aged out of my most remunerative demographic. Things really took a turn when I moved to New York.
It was not my first time in the city, of course. That was in December 1990, when my parents and I, along with Leroy and one of his spooky friends, spent a glitzy weekend at the Waldorf and Dad got mugged, which is why he disappeared for 24 hours. I don’t believe Dad really got mugged. I believe Dad was off spending my money at some other, crummier hotel with Matilda Fitzpatrick, whose movie was premiering that weekend at the Ziegfeld, which was why we were in town, and whose age at the time you are welcome to look up on IMDb; I’d rather not dwell on it myself. New York from the Waldorf with all expenses paid is different in more than the obvious ways from New York on foot with depression weight slowing you down. There’s room service, sure, but what you miss from the 17th floor is the spice and whirl of life itself! When we flew back to L.A., I thought I had seen New York, but what I had seen was “New York,” and very little of that, given how much time Mom and I spent dicking around with the cops who insisted on believing Dad’s story. I had seen nothing.
Eighties kids will remember Natalie May, who played my older sister in “Why Ruin a Bad Thing?” Natalie’s actually from New York, although I think she lives in Utah or Spain now and teaches yoga. All former actresses seem to go through a yoga-teaching phase, I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’s the kind of occupation that has a temporary, I’m-just-dabbling feel to it, which makes it seem like something you would do between projects. Natalie was one of exactly two people who completely approved of my moving to New York, the other person being Dad, who had his own shadier reasons for being on board. More importantly, Natalie hooked me up with an apartment, which was kind of a big deal since at the time my bank account was, for various reasons that have nothing to do with this story, frozen. I had the apartment’s address and intended to walk there from Midtown, not realizing it was in Brooklyn, which, hear me out, was not the completely airheaded decision it seems; quite a lot of streets in Brooklyn have Manhattan counterparts, including Clinton Street.
If Manhattan was spiky and frantic, Brooklyn was vast and amorphous. At night, the sodium vapor of overhead lights yellowed the brownstones and washed out the storefronts. Back then, Brooklyn was just Brooklyn, the way Hoboken today is just Hoboken. One of the things I came to understand about New Yorkers is that they are all genius real estate speculators given the proper settings for their time machines. E.g., “If I could go back to [some year in the ’70s], I would purchase [some then-shitty townhouse] with dimes from the couch.” But you don’t need to go back to the ’70s. In 1999, Park Slope was still nowheresville and Williamsburg was an orthodox wasteland. My Cobble Hill redoubt was as close to Manhattan as Roosevelt Island and it still felt like Weehawken.
The apartment was in a tenement. I mention this only to identify a building type indigenous to New York, long and narrow and indented with light wells. But there are rat-hole tenements and million-dollar tenements. We are a long way from Jacob Riis and “How the Other Half Lives.” In 1991, I did a buddy picture with Bob Downey where I played a runaway named Skate who lived in a halfway home. We were shooting at Universal before the renovation and Johnny McLarin, our set decorator, constructed at great expense two levels of an Old Law tenement because he wanted to be able to Steadicam Bobby up a flight of stairs to the room where we had our scene together. I had a 6 a.m. call that day and I remember that Dad was supposed to drive me because Mom was staying with her mother in San Bernardino again or something; I can’t remember. Dad was always looking for excuses to get onto either the Universal or Paramount lots so that he could spend the day farting around doing God knows what. On this particular day, however, Dad hung around set for some reason, which I discovered when one of the halfway-house girls came up to me at craft services and pointed to a Dad-shaped lump trying to work a payphone convincingly attached to a flat. One of Dad’s less-charming habits was a tendency, usually starting in the midafternoon, to mistake, say, the set of a bar for an actual bar. This was only really a problem where lavatories were involved. The halfway-house girl was Claire Harper (Sue in “So Sue Me!”), who was part of Natalie May’s infamous clique. Years after this incident, when I told Natalie I was moving to New York, she reached out to Claire. Thus it was through Natalie via Claire that I was put in touch with Claire’s mother who had a spare bedroom in Brooklyn.
After lugging myself around the Lower East Side, I finally determined that I was in the wrong “borough” and cabbed it to Brooklyn. Claire’s mother, Amanda Harper, buzzed me up. She was in her late 40s but she looked like she was in her 20s. Her apartment smelled strongly of hippie fumes and was full of spiritual doodads like buffalo drums and these sort of tacky rocks. I found her in the middle of packing for a trip. “So, you can, like, have the place to yourself for a few months,” she told me, which was not what I was expecting.
What was I suspecting? A doorman, for one thing. One of those genial giants out of “Eloise,” dashingly attired in livery and helping me into and out of Town Cars. Failing that, an elevator at least, helpful neighbors, a heating system that was more 20th century than the symphony of radiators that were nearly as loud as they were ineffective. Chiefly, I expected that Amanda would be there; the idea that I was to be left alone in New York hadn’t really occurred to me. All my life, I have been very heavily chaperoned. My childhood was a whirl of managers and tutors and agents and spies. Birthday parties were press junkets and hospital visits were hushed up. School was a one-on-one affair with that month’s adult minder. Child stars are provided with nearly everything save childhood, which typically comes at a much later date.
When Claire’s mother, Amanda, informed me she was going to Cuba to preside over an exorcism or something, my first thought was how much more she was going to charge me in rent now that I had the whole place to myself. We approached the subject gingerly.
“Now,” she said, “as far as rent is concerned —”
“I don’t know what you’ve read but I’m not made of money!” I sagely advised her.
While she packed, I took stock of my surroundings. They were whatever the opposite of propitious is. Three rooms and not a single television. In the kitchen, I noted the lack of virtually any cooking utensils, along with the fact that Amanda seemed to be packing up nearly everything she could get her hands on, including a lot of her tacky rocks and most of the clothes she had on. We met again in the hallway, Amanda in a pair of cable-knit leg warmers and the sort of cantilevered string panties that were à la mode circa then. As far as I can recall, that was all she was wearing aside from some bracelets perhaps and one of her weird amulets maybe. I was still in my coat.
“Want to come to Havana with me, Brian?” she asked.
She had a thing about calling me Brian. It was kind of cute. Whenever I mentioned Claire, she acted like I was referring to someone who was waiting downstairs. Claire had suggested her mom was a bit of a ditz but this was something else altogether. I wasn’t prepared for it. I had spent upward of four days cooped up in a psychological experiment on wheels, hemmed in by an outspoken white supremacist and various other non-normal people. All I wanted was a hot bath and a warm bed, and here I was getting the runaround. Don’t worry, we’re getting to the part where I find out this woman in the alluring satin panties isn’t really Claire’s mother, I get it, you’re perceptive, congrats. The thing is, my libido was more than a little distorted by the discovery of Dad’s little seraglio, the May clique he’d somehow infiltrated with what Mom insisted on calling charm but was really a kind of preternatural immunity to what you and I would call shame. So the reader will forgive me if I was unbalanced by the multiple and conflicting cues I was receiving from this underclad stranger. In addition to my traumatic backstory, I had reason to doubt that my ability to maintain an erection could survive the side effects of my mood pills. Besides, nearly all of my experience thus far had been thoroughly choreographed by ADs and camerapeople. My first-ever human kiss is still preserved on film, the riverbank scene with Phyllis Hemingway in “Make Mine a Doublet.” This was followed by the hilarious business in the hot-air balloon in “We’re British, Innit?” where a pratfall allowed me to technically get to second base with Jessica Chamberlin (multiple times; thank you, helmer Nathan Rogers, for all of those takes). But off-camera encounters had been few and far between. There was Leroy McNair’s very pretty but retrospectively unnerving “niece” (I don’t believe it) who let me feel her breasts by insisting I do so. Years later, when I told my extraordinary and exacting wife about this, our marriage-mender decided to look the poor woman up on Facebook, which in my experience rarely leads to gratifying revelations. Folks, what is it about Facebook? Why do I always find old friends on there looking either alarmingly bloated or aggressively happy on skis at Mammoth next to some chump with normal dental work named Conor? Conor … What was I talking about? The thing about Leroy McNair is that he had this system set up with Dad, oh now I remember where I was going with this: the woman on Facebook was like 60 years old! This in no way, shape or form computes with her being Leroy’s niece, even if Leroy was older than he said he was, which he was.
I was mesmerized by those panties. They were this cerulean satin arrangement and they shot up Claire Harper’s mom’s legs like a slingshot and she kept shifting from one leg to the other as if to say, “I saw you on Nickelodeon last night, hot stuff, come and get it.” 1999. Turning point. New York. Manon LaRohe. Just reminding myself of the bullshit reasons I had to write this retarded essay in the first place.
I don’t mean to boast, but suffice it to say that after exchanging the kind of echt-witty banter that only a Shakespeare like Curtis Yarlburton (“Puzzle Milk”) could scribe, I found myself necking with Claire’s ostensible mother and second-basing her right then and there in the hallway, fade to black. The next morning I woke up and had one of those experiences where you wake up in a new place for the first time and you think you’re still dreaming, ever have that? I sat up in bed and looked around. Something was very off. Claire’s mother was gone and the apartment was echoy and strange. I had an audition that morning, so I didn’t have too much time to investigate. I needed to go through my regular audition prep, which is a trade secret, but I can tell you that at this particular point in my life it involved a probably unwise amount of those funny anger pills that were recommended slash given to me by one of my managers, a peculiar man you’ve probably read about in the trades named Leroy McNair who, for a manager, knew quite a lot about pills, taxation schemes and, according to my dangerously observant wife, “being a grade-A creepo.” I reached for my pills; they were gone. I reached for my coat; it was gone. There was a general goneness going on in the apartment. At length, I located the few remaining articles of clothing that Claire’s mom hadn’t taken with her to “Cuba.” When I finally left the apartment dolled up in these borrowed duds, I suppose I must have looked like some sort of unmedicated fortune-teller. I hailed a cab, which I couldn’t pay for because I hadn’t been able to find my wallet. “Take me to Mount Sinai Hospital,” I told the driver, who was not Manon LaRohe, we’re getting to that, just you wait.
New York! My first New York audition! To say that I was nervous and excited would be an understatement. I have secretly wanted to be a top-notch Broadway superstar ever since Bobby Morse cold-cocked Dad on the Gower lot. I don’t know why I’m airing all of my dirty laundry here, it’s really beside the point and I need to save some of this material for memoirs and reunion specials and now, apparently, Tinder. This essay isn’t about the business per se, but I do need to make a few points regarding some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that was going on with me that very few of you people seem to know about. I was not “dropped” by my agent for turning down Boy Scouts vs. Girl Scouts. Nor, when I moved to New York had I “run out of money.” And I was not found on a park bench by a Mountie, that doesn’t even make sense, johnhugheswasacommie1982. The New York move had to do with ambition, pure and simple. I wanted to be the next Larry Kert, and I knew the only way was the hard way, which meant good old-fashioned Broadway greasepaint and sucking up to a bunch of nobodies. Now, it’s true that my agent and I had a difference of opinion about this and, as a result, we decided to take what you might call a “pause,” or what my agent’s attorney speciously referred to as “breach of contract” — a laughable phrase considering that I’ve never signed a contract in my life. Leroy McNair did that for me. He was the Rich Little of other people’s signatures (look it up).
So, when I say that already on Day One in New York, I had my first New York-style audition lined up, I don’t expect you to be impressed that I did all the legwork by myself, but you should be aware of the context. I made the phone calls, I got to yes, I mailed and stamped the 8-by-10 glossies, I successfully exited the taxicab midblock and hid from the driver in Brentano’s when I couldn’t find my wallet. I’m not looking for sympathy, just a little understanding.
My contact at Mount Sinai couldn’t have been sweeter. I met her as per the advertisement on the urology floor of Building A where she gave me a form to fill out and some saline because I guess I was already going through pill withdrawal. I could tell she recognized me but was trying to play it cool, which was very New York of her, so I broke the ice by complimenting her on the nurse costume she was wearing and we did a little banter about the business. Pro tip: always be extra friendly to admin; you never know when today’s flunky will turn out to be tomorrow’s studio prexy. The humid dinginess of the office I was eventually led to reassured me. Typically, the more prestigious a project is, the crummier its casting facilities turn out to be. My first meeting with the producers of “Major Hole,” for instance, occurred in the parking lot of the Carl’s Jr. on Sepulveda; Nathan Rogers was notorious for interviewing production assistants in the steam-room of the Paramount Studios gym. As Louis C.K. would say, “That’s showbiz, fattie!”
“Daniel, this is Dr. Apicelli and Dr. Wellbrock. I’m Dr. Schait and I run the standardized patient program here at Mount Sinai. Please have a seat.”
It was unusual to be interviewed at such length before reading, but I figured they did things differently here in New York. Stranger still was the fact that I wasn’t auditioning in front of a camera. I must have mentioned this because at some point Dr. Schait said, “Oh, rest assured, Daniel, we’re filming you.” Folks, I did not like this. I was prepared to pay my dues and start at the bottom where live performance gigs were concerned, but these men in their white coats made me feel like I had wandered onto the set of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Well,” Dr. Schait chuckled. “As it happens, psychiatric evaluation is one of the most important parts of the program. Our students will need you to model different mental states.”
“Uh, listen, Dr. Schait,” I said normally. “I would love to get into character for you, but I hardly know what kind of character to get into.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that for now,” Dr. Schait said. “That’s all part of the initiation. You see, our SPs — that is, standardized patients — the SPs go through a training process with Dr. Apicelli and Dr. Wellbrock before they interact with the medical students directly. During the training process, the SPs practice all sorts of ‘characters,’ as you put it, from trauma victims to prison transferees to patients suffering from mental illnesses. Versatility is key. We want to expose our students to as many kinds of patients as possible.”
I nodded. I was beginning to internalize the euphemistic argot of East Coast showbiz: rehearsal was “training process” and auditions were “psychiatric evaluations.” The usual industry bumbledebum, I suppose, but I didn’t understand why actors were referred to as “patients.”
“Well,” chuckled Dr. Schait. “That’s the role you’re playing, Daniel. You certainly won’t be playing the part of physician!”
The white-coated auditors had a big laugh at this.
“Why not?” I asked.
After a little more banter, some of which I must admit I didn’t totally understand, I passed around some extra glossies and was thanked for my time and that was that. It was not even noon on my first day in the Big Apple and I had already nailed my first big audition. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent in a leisurely stroll from the Upper East Side back to my sublet in Brooklyn. Back then, you will remember, most walks took place without musical accompaniment. The game-changing Zune hadn’t been invented yet and the au courant portable CD players made you look like a wired-up discus-thrower, no thanks. During my walk, I got a lot of double-takes from the hoi polloi. By then, I’d been off of my murder meds for a full depression cycle, so perhaps my face had begun to deflate to its natural chiseledness. At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, a vet who recognized me asked me why I was dressed like a harlequin and I told him it was for a role, which was sort of not true. I managed to Sharpie only my first name on his “Don’t Tread on Me” flag before he wheelchaired away.
When I unlocked the door to Claire’s mom’s apartment, I was surprised to find a more age-appropriate version of Claire’s mother standing there in the hall, fully clothed, giving me the old head-to-toe once-over.
“I suppose you can explain,” she said, sounding arrestingly mom-like, “what has happened to my apartment.”
Reader, I could not. I discovered that the questions that this second, better-cast version of Claire’s mother had for me had been rolling around in the back of my head all day: “Where are the cooking supplies?” “Where is the linen?” “Where are my tacky rocks?” and so on. I tried to explain. The problem was, I was very conspicuously attired in an ensemble belonging to the aggrieved householder; to wit: a red plaid tunic, chic fur-collared cape, a pair of very flattering bellbottoms and a tartan babushka. My appearance seemed to be putting me on the wrong foot.
“Now listen, Mrs. Harper,” I normally vocalized. “I don’t think it’s in either of our interests for this little mishap to find its way onto Page Six —”
“Get out,” she said.
As the Eagles would say: in a New York minute you can go from a cloud-nine audition to the cold streets of Brooklyn, sans wallet and Canada pills, with one of your more prominent incisors un-veneered. For the first time in my life, I was 100 percent alone.
* * *
“It was Joey Malone who first explained to me how the front office had perfected the art of screwing its talent by inflating expenditures. They knew how to make even the biggest hit look like a bomb by debiting bogus line items against boffo receipts. Malone was a major topliner back then, funny how things change. He was the one who got Tri-Star to sign the first-ever 20-against-20, still the gold standard of performer pacts. The actor gets advanced 20 rocks against 20 percent of the gross, which is totally nutzo. Most of us are lucky to see anything on the backend whatsoever. We were shooting ‘Das German!’ back when Malone’s q-factor was through the roof and he had all these weird perks, like a massage therapist for his chiropractor, things specifically stipulated in his contract, which, when we learned about them, we literally thought were jokes, like, ‘Let’s see what we can make these assholes do for me.’ All these M&M clauses, like the brand of toilet paper his trailer lav was supposed to be spooled with. He’d put them in just to make sure people were paying attention. Malone was a genius. He was a good actor too, I suppose.”
I was on my third stein of rotgut at the Atlantic Avenue saloon I’d holed up in after Amanda Harper gave me the heave-ho when the tapster shot me the we’re-closing nod and I responded with the I-can’t-pay celebrity-shrug. During one of my rare lulls in the early ’90s, Dad, finding himself with too much time on his hands and not enough of my money coming in, was arrested for running some sort of con at these strip-mall watering holes he used to frequent in Van Nuys. He’d ask the barman if he could change a 50 and when the barman said sure, Dad would hand him a 20 and pocket the difference. It was such a stupid scheme that I think its stupidity is why it succeeded. Anyway, at some point Dad made the mistake of trying it twice with the same bartender and bada-bing he was the thrown in the clink. I won’t say it isn’t a learning experience to bail your own father out of lockup, but there are some lessons one is inclined to postpone until one is old enough to drive or to purchase ameliorating quantities of booze for oneself. All the same, I was rather tempted to try one of Dad’s old tricks at this crummy canteen. But if I didn’t lack Dad’s shamelessness, I most certainly lacked paper money. I began to think that my agent was right about New York: it was for people who can’t hack it in Hollywood and whose parents are still under orders of protection from one or more of the major studios.
The coup de grace of my reversal of fortune was being kicked to the curb in a manner so ruthlessly literal that I thought, well, at least this is it: the nadir of famelessness.
“Oh my God,” came a voice of unplaceable familiarity. “Danny Parker? Is that you, Danny? My God, what are you doing in Brooklyn of all places?”
I squinted up from the gutter in which I was cowering at a head silhouetted by streetlight. That voice. It was a California voice, a voice flattened by freeways and juice drinks. When I stumbled to my feet, I could see that it belonged to Hank Heusley, looking middle-aged at 30 and well groomed. He grinned as if this was just the funniest thing, me on the sidewalk in unstylish castoffs and he on his hind legs in hoity-toity menswear. Hank used to be one of those suspiciously well-educated gofers you see a lot of in the industry. They run errands for big shots and learn everybody’s secrets and before you know it they’re on stage at the Globes thanking their mom. I watched as Hank gestured with a gloved hand to a woman who’d been walking ahead of him.
“Sweetheart,” I tried not to hear him say, “this is Danny Parker. You remember Danny. He did a lot of background work for Nate Rogers back in the days of Leroy McNair and the juvie brigade, remember them? All these kids they’d truck in from places like Ventura and Pasadena, give them a few lines now and then to meet guild quotas. But Danny here actually popped for a brief time. He had this adorable snaggletoothed smile and whenever he got a line in, people would remember him because he was so cute and funny looking. Danny, what was your line in “The Christmas Crook,” the one about the priests?”
“Nuns,” I muttered.
“Come again, Danny? I didn’t hear you. Say, Danny, what the hell are you doing in Brooklyn anyway? Last I heard, you were shooting industrials for Boeing in Palmdale, what came of that, did they send you into space, ha ha. Sweetheart, you must have seen “The Christmas Crook.” Remember the kid they cut to after Natalie May falls off the stage in the school play? That was Danny!”
“No way!” chirped his Hank Heusley’s income-appropriate ladyfriend.
“Come on, Danny, what was that line we gave you, something about God? I gotta say, I barely recognized you, all grown up and, well, dressed the way you are.”
“The clothes …” I managed. “I’m … preparing for a role. I’ve been hired by some of Mount Sinai’s top scientists to depict a case of extreme dissipation and mental impairment. If you’ll excuse me, I must find the nearest bridge and prepare to felo-de-se myself.”
Hank, respectful at least of the legitimacy of Method preparation, shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.” Then, after we had parted, he turned back to me and blurted, “Danny, for God’s sake, what was it that you —”
“‘God bless us,’” I intoned, “‘every nun.’”
* * *
I will tell you the truth. I will tell you the truth about what it is like to be famous. Imagine you are walking down the street one day. A stranger approaches you and smiles. You smile back. Continuing to smile, the stranger walks past you. As you turn to watch him, you see that he was greeting the man behind you, and your grin was the grin of a fool. That is what fame, what celebrity amounts to. It’s the sense that there is always this ghost, this ever-present third party who people are really seeing when you think they are seeing you. When you live perpetually in the shadow of the public’s idea of who you are, fame can seem like a kind of obscurity.
I made my way through the leafy environs of Brooklyn Heights, past the fruit-themed streets to one of the onramps of the great bridge. It seemed as good a time as any. I was at peace with myself in a way. I stood on the planks of the pedestrian walkway that runs through the center of the bridge. Manhattan was spread out much like the green-screen cycloramas with which I was more familiar, the out-of-focus backdrop for something realer going on in the foreground. I leapt onto the railing that separated the boardwalk from the southbound lanes of traffic and tried to steady myself.
It occurs to me now as I write this that the reason I was never very good as an actor had nothing to do with talent. Talent, when it comes to acting, is so slippery as to be almost completely undefinable, and I have never been particularly blown away by people who’ve been described to me as “super talented,” which invariably means they’re good at accents or something. I was never good at accents. I suppose I never much cared to try, which I guess is the point. Whatever else acting may require of voice and body, its only real prerequisite is the kind of yearning that makes people willing to starve for it, to camp out for days in front of casting offices, to humiliate themselves in order to redeem the least iota of hope. What did I yearn for? The substitution of gross points for net points, I suppose.
For those of you who have never tried to throw yourself into the drink from one of New York’s suspension bridges, I will try to set the scene. The Brooklyn Bridge is a little more challenging in terms of ledge access than, say, the George Washington Bridge, but it is not exactly suicide proof. What you have to do first is to make a short leap from the railing that runs along either side of the central boardwalk and onto the cast-iron trestle that separates the walkway from the roadway. From here you can fairly easily monkey-bar your way up to one of the I-beams that spans the roadway, and once you’re there, you’re nearly home free. All you have to do now is to balance-beam over the zooming traffic and suddenly there you are at the edge of the bridge, looking down through 200 feet of air at your final destination, so to speak.
For me, the moment was surprisingly free of pathos. It turns out that tricky logistics are very effective at clearing the mind of self-pity. When I saw the watery vastness below, my first thought was to be sure I was far enough away from the rocky littoral to make the effort sufficiently permanent. I got as far as the joint where the I-beam meets the final trestle when my legs went wobbly. I suppose I will never know how close I was to taking the plunge but I was quite nearly blown headlong into the water involuntarily by a sudden gust of mechanical wind, the blinding spotlight of an aerial klieg and the deafening roar of a hovering chopper. Below me, traffic was stopped by a cordon of cop cars. From the pedestrian bridge a uniformed officer was trying to coax me away from the edge with a megaphone. The whole thing was so sudden that all I could think was that if this was how the police dealt with bridge-jumpers I wondered how many victims they lost simply by startling them.
I was ready to relent but I noticed something curious. The patrolmen on the walkway had their hands on their holsters as if ready to draw. And why had they dispatched a chopper to deal with a suicide? When I crept back across the I-beam and over the trestle, the reception I received was less Norma Desmond on the staircase and more Sonny Wortzik on the tarmac. The open arms I’d expected reached out to handcuff me. Instead of being comforted, I was Mirandized.
“What’s the charge?” I demanded. “Suicide? I didn’t do it, you know. You interrupted me.”
“Larceny,” came the response. “Identity theft. Breaking and entering. Corruption of various minors.”
“What? I didn’t do any of those things! You have the wrong man!”
This was followed by a lot of macho-sounding police murmur but I managed to make out the voice of someone who sounded in charge say something like, “Man? Did she say man?” After that it was mostly white noise, the feeling of falling, bright lights and a heavy dose of nothingness. I awoke in what I thought was the slammer but turned out to be a rinky-dink loony bin with various homeless insaneos. I’d hit a new level of low but at least I was back on my pill regimen, right? Everything was going to be A-OK.
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Several months later, on the bus back to Los Angeles, there was a layover in Oklahoma City. We had five hours to kill and I found a little Okie bar that immediately served me, no questions asked. My stint in New York had obviated the need for a fake ID by aging me prematurely. I left the bar at twilight and started walking aimlessly around what seemed to be a kind of bullshit city.
So here’s the question for you, message board. Does the fact that I was mistaken by the police for a serial house burglar and all-around weirdo named Manon LaRohe mean that my life was saved by said criminal? I suppose it does, but only if you eliminate her participation in the events that led to my suicidal tap dance. If the cops hadn’t been searching for a burglaress wearing Amanda Harper’s clothes they mightn’t have swooped in to “save” me; but if Manon LaRohe hadn’t ransacked the real Amanda’s apartment I might not have needed saving, see how that works? Then again, Ms. LaRohe did let me second-base her rather thoroughly, so I guess that goes on the credit side of the ledger for those keeping tabs, I know I’m not. Not anymore. When I look in the mirror these days, the face that greets me belongs to a kind of venerable news anchor, all wrinkles and blood vessels. The scripts I receive are mostly written by Encino pornographers or coffeeshop typists who bit-torrented Final Draft and use a lot of smash cuts.
Outside the Oklahoma City bus station I was approached by a man who said, “Hey!” Then: “Sorry, thought you were someone else.”
Is the movie version of America a Western, I wonder? Or is it just a remake of various European classics? When America was greenlit, who decided to cast a bit player like Reagan as lead and why was so much of the comedy handled by a cipher like Bob Hope? From the window of my aromatic bus, I watched the country respool itself like the reel of a big-budget epic, the sort of sentimental claptrap the old men in your family watch on the movie channel while their wives are asleep, cornfields in lurid yellows and greens, men on horseback fording technicolor rivers, picket fences, freckled children. In the movies you get to be perfect.
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Warren Keith is a recent graduate of NYU’s MFA program, where he studied fiction with Zadie Smith, E.L. Doctorow and Darin Strauss. His non-fiction writing can be found at warrenkeith.org.