The actual quote was, “Let me see if I’ve got this right, you want to make your living by being someone else?”
This was my father’s reaction when I told him I was going to quit my job to become an actor. At the time I was the County Manager for Washington County, North Carolina. It was my job to oversee the various projects the County Commissioners wanted implemented. I supervised the construction of a new hospital, wrote grants (including the one for my job), made sure the farmers had enough fuel to get their crops in, etc. It was a job that carried a lot of responsibility and one with great potential–one of my colleagues ran for governor of North Carolina — and it was killing me.
I didn’t know that, not at the time. Not until I went to Raleigh to do a workshop and had to get a photograph taken for an ID card. I had on my best sports coat and was feeling pretty good when the photographer snapped my picture. The ID card arrived in the mail a few days later. I opened the envelope and instead of seeing this hip, feeling good guy I saw a poor, sad son-of-a-bitch staring back at me. And I knew it was me, my name was under the photograph. I was so shaken I had to sit down. I kept looking at the photograph asking, “Why is this guy so sad?”
I spent the rest of the day trying to remember the last time I had been happy, truly happy. I finally pinpointed it – it was four years earlier. I was in college and I was playing Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. While I was reminiscing about that production I felt an odd sensation in my face. I looked in the mirror. I was smiling. Really smiling. Not one of those, “Someone’s taking your picture” smiles but a real smile.
A couple of days later I gave my notice. The first thing the Chairman of the Board did was to offer me a raise but I told him I wasn’t staying. I didn’t tell him what my plans were because I didn’t know. I spent the next two weeks making a list of the things I had always wanted to do but for whatever reason hadn’t done yet. At the top of the list was “Be An Actor.” I had no idea how I was going to do that but that was the first thing on my list. Another thing on the list was “Ride a Motorcycle Across Country.” I could do something about that so I bought a motorcycle – a Suzuki 500.
I spent the weekend with my parents and told them what I was going to; or at least as much as I knew. My parents were depression era children and the thought of anyone, especially their son, not having a job was unconscionable. Neither one of them said anything the first day, then on Sunday my father said, “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You want to make your living by being someone else?” Which I thought was a pretty astute observation. I wasn’t happy being me so maybe if I could be someone else and make a living at it, that sounded pretty good.
They weren’t unsupportive, more like bewildered. I’m sure they had the discussion, “Where did we go wrong” many times over the next ten years until I was able to turn my dreams into a reality. But, and unfortunately my dad couldn’t tell me this—he wasn’t wired that way, it was my sister who told me how proud my dad was whenever one of their neighbors would say, “Saw John on Dallas last night.” Or, “John did a great job on Hill Street Blues,” or whatever TV show I was in.
Somewhere along the way I’ve come to understand that the happiness I’ve experienced over the past forty years wasn’t because I was “being someone else” – it was because I was following my dreams. I’m so glad I had my picture taken that day, it helped me become the person I am now.
Here’s to you following your dreams.