HOLLYWOOD: My (not so) Brilliant Career…
A couple of weeks ago I auditioned for Steven Soderbergh’s new pair of films based on the life of Che Guevara. A friend had tipped me off that they were casting here in Madrid, and even though I hadn’t given acting a second thought in ages, I thought, “Where’s the harm?” I soon found the answer while doing my first cold reading in almost thirty (cough!) years. The role was a very small one, an African American military officer between 35 & 40, and my lines consisted of scowling into a video camera about how “we’ll turn those Bolivians into US grade Special Forces,” while bragging that “we’ve got the best chopper pilot in Nam.” I did three takes, and the last one being the best, was forwarded to Mr. Soderbergh. A few days later the casting agent very politely called to tell me what I already knew… that the part had gone to someone else. Someone more worthy, I’m sure, because my reading was so mechanical it surprised even me! Let’s forget for a moment that I’m roughly 75 pounds too magnificent of late to fit into the part, (let alone the uniform)… the thing is, I had genuinely forgotten how to audition!
Now, coming from the family of hams that I do, I thought for sure it would be just like riding a bike… but even that other Lance (er… Armstrong) would be kind of wobbly after a thirty year layoff.
Let’s set the wayback machine to 1979, in New York City, and the last audition I ever did…
Starting when I was four (I was the smallest Billygoat in an Alabama production of “The Three Billygoats Gruff”), I spent my whole younger life performing in plays, super8 films and my father’s various productions. I loved acting, filmmaking & prose writing… but as the years progressed I started to appreciate comics a whole lot more. It was a way to combine all of my interests into a single means of expression. I admire my father more than any artist in the world, but as I watched him spread his creative energy thin across so many artistic forms, I began to consider myself best served by picking one and sticking with it. But I kept trying on hats for size, like the time that I spent a week of school nights playing at being a gang member in Walter Hill’s THE WARRIORS. I didn’t have to audition because it was an extra part in the film’s famous scene where all of the city’s hood population converges upon a park for a speech by a charismatic gangland messiah. When he’s assassinated in full view of everyone, the Warriors gang gets the blame and the fun begins. I never would’ve gotten cast though, if they knew I was only fourteen! My Uncle George, who’s acted in over a hundred films set in New York (and only one by Woody Allen… I’ll tell that story sometime, oh wait… I already did in BETWEEN THE DEVIL & MILES DAVIS) was hired by the casting agent, but my uncle decided for whatever reason to let me play the part. All I had to do was say I was George Tooks and I’d be fine… but just in case, he told a friend of his to keep an eye on me. That friend turned out to be Steve James, legendary 1980’s action movie star. He didn’t have much to worry about… all I was hired for was five nights of screaming and running, which is what fourteen year olds do anyway.
All of this went on while I was a student at the High School of Art & Design. One of my English teachers, Mr. Cassell, knew I’d been in the movie and could tell I had the bug based on my various turns in Humor & Satire class, playing characters from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde & G.B. Shaw from week to week. When I was sixteen he recommended me to a theatre producer friend of his, who was looking for a black kid who could do a Cockney accent. I came, I saw, I auditioned in his apartment… and walked off with the part.
The secret to comedy being (wait for it)… timing, I had only just that same incredibly busy “New York week” gotten a job that any sixteen year old would’ve died for: I was hired by Jim Shooter as an intern at Marvel Comics. I felt at a crossroads… I could have done both, I suppose, but I had doubts. When I spoke to Shooter he was nothing but encouraging… the theatre guy on the other hand creeped me out a bit. So I declined the role, choosing comics and feeling rather mature about my choice. Until I went to share my decision with Mr. Cassell, that is. “You idiot,” he screamed at me, in front of a class full of students. He led me to the hallway, continuing, “You would have been paid $300 a week for rehearsals alone, more once the show started… and you would have been made Actor’s Equity! Do you know how you get into that union? You are CHOSEN!”
So much for my own choice. Up until that moment of my life I had never even SEEN a hundred dollar bill up close, so $300 seemed like “Thurston Howell the Third” money to me. I called the producer that night, but the part had been recast, probably with some lesser talent like Wesley or Denzel. I never spoke to Mr. Cassell again, but do regret not telling him when I was sixteen years old that the reasons he cited for my being an idiot had more to do with money than they had to do with doing what I felt I was born to do. But I’m sure he meant well… I’m even surer every year come tax day when I realize that there are Girl Scouts selling cookies that generate more gross income than I do creating Graphic Novels that nobody reads.
And everybody loves cookies.
I had a pretty good four year run at Marvel Comics, learning things that have served me well in decades since. While I was there my Uncle George turned up with another movie part for me. His girlfriend at the time, actress Beverly Bonner was cast in a quirky low budget horror film called BASKETCASE, about a typical American whiteboy who carried his mutated twin brother in a wicker basket. Directed by Frank Henenlotter, this (really good) film was an ode to 42nd street in the 60’s & 70’s when the Grindhouse was king… before Times Square became the soulless corporate hellhole it is today (you’ll never be President, Rudy… not while there’s life in my body). Not only do I turn up on camera a few times, but I even helped out occasionally behind the scenes (that was me in that van, Frank, when that huge guy came running out of the stripjoint with a baseball bat, and not your brother… though I’m flattered) and I rounded up extras for the film among family & friends: my sister Kim, my girlfriend Nicole Willis & my friends, artists Kevin J. Taylor, Amodio Giordano & Harry Candelario. Even my parents turned up in the movie... holding hands in a gay bar. I love New York.
In 1981, while playing volleyball in Central Park, a lunchtime ritual with the Marvel Bullpen (including Christopher J. Priest, Ralph Macchio, Mark Gruenwald, Ann Nocenti, Jim Salicrup, Jim Shooter, Mike Carlin, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Klaus Jansen, Terry Austin, Mike Nasser & dozens more), I met Scott Leva, an incredibly prolific (check his IMDB page) stunt coordinator who in addition to a part-time gig as Spiderman (for Marvel’s department of Special Appearances) was working on a Troma film to be titled WHEN NATURE CALLS. The Charles Kaufman directed comedy is the only film to my knowledge to co-star David Straithairn, G. Gordon Liddy, Freddie Blassie & Willie Mays. (It’s also the only movie I’ve ever walked out of… and I was in it!) Anyway, Black stuntmen were in short supply at the time and Scott Leva wanted to do something about that. Maybe it was my Baryshnikov-like grace in diving for a save that convinced him I was worthy, but in less than a week he had me trained to leap backwards off twenty-five foot scaffolding onto a pile of mats and cardboard boxes in Newark, New Jersey. There was an ambulance on standby, but this New Yorker wasn’t about to spill a drop of blood in Jersey.
Continuing my unbroken run of blundering my way onto the sets of now legendary cult movies (when I wasn’t trying to be an actor anymore… honest), Uncle George stepped in again (perhaps a bit surprised that I’d gotten the last job myself without draggin’ his good reputation through the mud), and invited me & my brother Eric to join him for a few days shooting another film. BEAT STREET was an unfortunate breakdance movie directed by Stan “damn-my-daughter-Sanaa-is-fine” Lathan. Hollywood’s first attempt to record on celluloid “that rap sensation that’s sweeping the nation”, it could’ve used more dance and less romance. (So could’ve I in hindsight.) You can see me getting off a subway train with my bro… and that’s how I’d like to be remembered.
So perhaps it’s better that Steven Soderbergh didn’t consider me to be in a class with Benicio Del Toro & Matt Damon… it’s not like my credits will ever have me climbing a stage at the Kodak Ballroom. But I’m proud of the choices I’ve made… without them I never would’ve gotten to meet NARCISSA.