The day I arrived in New York I got food poisoning. Not an auspicious start. On the second day I called one of the actors that worked in my theatres in Florida. George (Buck) had moved to New York six months earlier and had been on about 75 auditions and had finally booked an off-Broadway play. He called me the next day and told me to come to his rehearsal that afternoon, one of the actors had dropped out of his show.
You know that saying, “It’s better to be lucky than good?” Well, my whole career has been tempered with a tremendous amount of good luck. I went to George’s rehearsal, met the director and without even auditioning I was hired. Seriously, the director and I chatted for a few minutes and he said, “You’ll be fine. Go talk to the wardrobe people.” And like that, three days after I arrived in New York, I was in my first off-Broadway show. I played R.W. in a piece titled The Escape.
We had a short run but as soon as that show closed, I was cast in another show. Neither one of them were hugely successful but I was working. About this time, I reached out to the J. Michael Bloom Agency. I had heard the name, thought having an agent would be a good idea so I wrote Mr. Bloom a letter – there was no email back then – and got an appointment…with J. Michael himself.
Up to this point I had been in one other agent’s office; a ten by ten-foot room with three
desks crammed together, an agent at each desk yammering on the phone. So, when I went to my appointment with J. Michael, I was totally unprepared. His offices were located at 400 Madison Avenue and as I rode up in the elevator I realized he not only owned the entire 19th floor but the 20th floor as well.
Dumbstruck, that’s a good way to describe how I felt. I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. He was very nice and tried to engage me in conversation by asking me long complex questions. Completely intimidated, I could barely muster up a simple “Yes,” or “No.” I knew I had blown this opportunity and near the end of our appointment I screwed up my courage and I asked if I could come back next week to read copy for him. I had seen some other actors in the reception room preparing to read copy for someone.
J. Michael said “Yes, that’s a good idea.” He asked his secretary to give me a piece of commercial copy and to come back next week and read for him. For various reasons our appointment kept getting cancelled and four weeks passed before I got to back in to see him. In the meantime, I had been cast in another play, a revival of the English play, The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan.
On my second trip to the Bloom Agency I was once again I was ushered into J. Michael’s office. We chatted for a few minutes and I told him I had been cast in The Winslow Boy. He congratulated me and said, “You’re going to read for me, right?”
And I started to read the copy he had given me only now, maybe because I was doing an English play, I did the commercial copy with an English accent. After a couple of sentences J. Michael stopped me and said, “John, if I want an Englishman, I’ll get an Englishman. Try it again.”
Unfortunately, and this will show you where I was as an actor at that time, I read the same piece of copy only this time I did it as a Brooklyn cab driver. I’m embarrassed to admit that but it’s true. Again, and with a great deal of patience, J. Michael stopped me and said, “John, If I want a Brooklyn cab driver I’ll get a Brooklyn cab driver. What I want (and these words shook me to my core), what I want is you.”
The reason I wanted to be an actor in the first place was to escape my life, to be someone else. I wanted to play a character and not have to take responsibility for being who I was. I knew something fundamental was lacking in my work; the whole reason I came to New York was to study, to find what was missing. But here I was repeating what I had done in Florida, playing at acting and not really delving into the craft. And J. Michael had hit it on the head.
As I left his office, I vowed to myself I would never step across his threshold again unless I was invited back. It had nothing to do with J. Michael. He was gracious to a fault. But I had failed myself and I wasn’t going to go back into that agency until I was ready. And invited. Two years later (to be continued)…