Often a student will say, usually after a not so good audition, “What is wrong with these people?” “That director, what a jerk!” Or, “I can’t believe she was so rude.” I’m always quick to say, “Hey, there are a lot of wonderful people in this business.” And it’s true. In fact, in my forty plus years as an actor I’ve discovered that the old axiom, “The higher up you go in this business, the nicer the people are,” is true.
After five years in New York with eight off-Broadway plays under my belt I was eager to get some TV and film experience. New York wasn’t like it is today. Now there are twenty plus television shows in production and a countless number of movies being filmed here. Back then it was a handful of soap operas and maybe a half a dozen films a year, many of them pre-cast out of LA.
So I packed my bags and headed for Hollywood. Shortly after arriving I had the good fortunate to sign with an agent but he told me, “This isn’t going to be easy, selling you. You don’t have any LA credits.”
But we agreed to give it a shot. A couple weeks later he called and said, “Look, I’ve got this thing. I don’t know if you’re interested or not but they want to see you. Howard Koch is producing and Walter Matthau is starring. It’s for the American Heart Association. It doesn’t pay anything so I don’t know if you want to do it.”
I’m not sure I even heard the last two sentences. What I heard was “Howard Koch is producing and Walter Matthau is starring.” Those two guys were titans in the industry. Mr. Koch had produced a slew of movies including The Manchurian Candidate (original version), The Odd Couple, On A Clear Day, Plaza Suite and two iconic TV shows Maverick and The Untouchables. Walter Matthau had starred in The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three; The Bad News Bears, The Odd Couple, Charade, The Front Page, etc., etc. AND THEY WANTED TO SEE ME!
I hustled over to my agent’s office and picked up the sides. It wasn’t a great script. It was one of those “Take care of your heart and your heart will take care of you” short films that would only play at medical conventions but I didn’t care. My scenes were with Mr. Matthau. The audition was in two days. I prepared like I had never prepared before. The next day my agent called with another audition. “It’s a decent role,” he said, “but it’s a new show. No one knows if it’ll even air. It’s called St. Elsewhere. You want to go?”
“Yeahhhh,” I said. I was thrilled to have any audition. I did my homework on both pieces, went to the St. Elsewhere audition the next morning and then over to Mr. Koch’s office at Paramount Studios for the Heart Association audition later that afternoon. I read for Mr. Koch and the director. My phone was ringing when I got home. I had booked the Heart Association job. Rehearsals started the next day.
I reported to the set in the morning and met Mr. Matthau. I told him I had played Oscar Madison in a college production of The Odd Couple. He was polite but didn’t seem terribly interested. After our wardrobe fittings the AD went over the shooting schedule – I was going to shoot my scenes the next afternoon. We rehearsed for a couple of hours and were taking a break when my agent called.
“Hey,” he said. “The St. Elsewhere people, they want to see you again. Callback’s tomorrow morning at 10:30.”
“Damn” I said.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m shooting the Heart Association film in the morning.”
“When’s your call?”
His other phone rang and he said, “Let me get this. I’ll get back to you.”
Mr. Koch was standing behind me when I hung up. “What’s up, kid?”
I told him about having a callback the next morning.
“What do you want?” He asked.
I turned away mumbling something even I didn’t understand.
He put a hand on my arm and stopped me. “In this business you’ve got to let people know what you want. What do you want?”
“Best case scenario, Mr. Koch? I’d like to do both.”
“If you could only do one, which would you do?”
“I’d do this one.”
“Our little film’s not going to give you much exposure.”
“There’s no money here.”
“I know that too, but I made a commitment.”
He smiled and said, “Let me give you a piece of advice. You’ve got to follow the money. Actors don’t always want to hear that but as a guy who’s been around the block a few times let me tell you, that’s the only way to make this crazy business work.”
Before I could say anything Mr. Koch yelled across the set. “Hey, Walter. The kid’s got a callback tomorrow morning. Can we shoot your scenes with him in the afternoon?”
Mr. Matthau looked at me and winked. “For you Oscar, anything.”
Mr. Koch talked to the director, she changed her shot list and after rehearsal as I was leaving I thanked Mr. Koch (for like the fifth time). He said, “Thank me by getting the job.”
I went to the callback the next morning and when I finished I reported to the Heart Association set. I shot my first scene with Mr. Matthau and while they were setting up our next scene my agent called to tell me I had booked St. Elsewhere. Mr. Koch didn’t get to the set until about four that afternoon. The first thing he said to me was, “How’d it go?” When I told him I booked it he gave me a thumbs up.
Now whenever I hear an actor complain about how somebody screwed them over, I’m quick to remind them that our business is filled with wonderful people. And sometimes I tell them the story about the day two giants went out of their way in order to give a new kid a shot.