Saturday, December 10, 2016

Being thankful for what others can only dream about

If you were a naturally self-obsessed person constantly in search of irritations, and suddenly find fame and fortune, would that “change” your personality? Would you suddenly cease to constantly bemoan your situation and actually enjoy your good fortune? Would you be grateful? Thankful? Entitled?

I read a story where there are “roughly” 70,000 people who work “exclusively” as actors, with a somewhat larger number who pay the bills with “day” jobs. The average “full-time” actor makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 an hour. If you throw out the $20 million that a few A-list actors make for one film, the average is obviously much lower for all the rest, to the point of poverty wages for those on the bottom—especially if they are not protected members of the Screen Actors Guild, which requires as membership “working on a SAG film in a principal role,” which is a high bar for most aspiring actors—especially when the guild requires producers to pay a hefty fine for giving non-guild actors a chance to be in a “principal role.”

Demographic appeal also has a say in one’s chances of being “famous.”  A PBS Newshour story in 2015 broke down the racial composition of 30,000 characters in film and television from 2007 to 2014; it found that 73 percent of characters were white, and 12.5 percent were black, meaning that each group was represented very much in line with their percent of the population. Hispanics were actually the only group that was by a considerable margin under-represented—only one-third of their percent of the population; in fact there were fewer Hispanic characters than Asian characters. 

Obviously some people complaints are more self-serving than others. In many films blacks seem oddly over-represented (I remember tuning into the half-way point of a movie that I “assumed” must be a "black-oriented” film, until I discovered it was actually the Keanu Reeves vehicle The Matrix Revolutions). This is also the case on television, although more noticeably on non-network stations; one observes, however, that unlike the 1970s with shows like Sanford & Son and Good Times, none of the current programming portrays life that is “realistic” for the vast majority of their intended consumers. 

On the other hand, Hispanics, and television shows in which they have a significant presence, are almost non-existent. It is interesting to note that during the 1950s, two of the most popular (albeit briefly) TV shows prominently featured Hispanic characters: the Disney production Zorro, and The Cisco Kid. Perhaps that was a function of television being a more “exotic” form of entertainment at that time. Since then, only Chico and the Man featured a Hispanic actor who was the “star” of the show. That was 40 years ago. Perhaps it is a reflection of anti-Hispanic prejudice in this country and difficulty in accepting them as a legitimate presence in American society with their own legitimate concerns, even though the vast majority in this country are U.S. citizens.

So we know the difficulty in becoming “stars”—let alone earning enough to live on—being an actor. Some actors have remained “stars” throughout their careers because of their distinctive, charismatic personalities; Jack Nicholson is certainly one of those. Other actors remain “famous” because they have the good fortune of appearing in critically-acclaimed films, and they “look good”; I doubt anyone would put Leonardo DiCaprio in Nicholson’s stratosphere, but he remains a major star because he has put together credible performances in a string of well-regarded films made by some of the best movie-makers in the business. 

But many actors who hit “pay-dirt” early in their careers disappeared off the face of the fame and fortune map. Tatum O’Neil won an Oscar at the age of 10 for Paper Moon, and only “resurfaced” from time to time in films no one remembers. F. Murray Abraham was a surprise winner in 1984 for Amadeus; was he ever anything but a minor character actor before or since? The same could be said of Adrien Brody, who won best actor for The Pianist in 2002. Child actors (meaning those in their pre-teen years) who were stars rarely achieved success as actors in movies; one of the few to do so was Kurt Russell. Ron Howard also found success, but not as an actor, but as a film director. Shirley Temple was, on the other hand, the prime example of a child star who was one of the most successful and famous box office attractions of her time, but whose adult career was a complete bust. The adult “careers” of the three child stars of the TV hit Different Strokes is of course well documented, and not pretty.

So why would anyone be “dumb” enough to achieve fame and success as an adult and find it such an imposition on their self-worth that they would throw it all away on whim, when it was unlikely that they would ever taste it again? I started on this thought path while watching a Laverne & Shirley “marathon”—I have all eight seasons on DVD. As someone weaned on the physical comedy of the Three Stooges as a youth, this was one of the last television sitcoms in which physical comedy—most unusually by the two female leads—was an important source of the comedy. Physical comedy today is almost non-existent, which is unfortunate because although the culture and idioms may change over time, physical comedy remains “timeless.” Yes, younger viewers believe that they are too “smart” for that kind of thing, but to me, what is boring are all those CSI-type shows with colorless, witless characters and no action. I’d rather watch a smart-aleck private eye like Joe Mannix get beat-up every week because he doesn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut in front of a bad guy, but eventually rouses himself to solve the crime with only his mind and his instincts. 

Because of their physical comedic elements, I find Laverne & Shirley episodes like “Child’s Play,” “Laverne & Shirley Meet Fabian” and “Not Quite South of the Border” as hysterically funny as anything I’ve ever seen on television or film—right up there with the scene in Used Cars where the actors who played Lenny and Squiggy, Michael McKean and David Lander, portray video pirates who use their expertise to cut into a Jimmy Carter television address to air a used car ad, where a competitor’s “high prices” are literally “blown-up” on his own lot.

But according to the book Happier Days: Paramount Television’s Classic Sitcoms 1974-1984 and gossip at the time, there was considerable discord on the set, principally amongst the two principles, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams. Williams seemed to believe that because of the heavy presence of the Marshall “clan” on the set and in production control, Marshall was given favorable treatment, getting the best lines or the most screen time; at one point, the producers were forced to “time” how much screen time each actress was getting and count the number of lines each had to “prove” that they were being treated “equally.” In the episode “How Do You Say ‘Are You Dead’ in German?” the two are arguing about what to do about the unconscious person lying on their floor, and wind up throwing faux slaps to the face at each other—except that while Williams’ thrust is clearly well off the mark, Marshall’s lands with a very audible connection between open hand and cheek. It is apparently so hard that Williams’ look of shock is certainly not feigned or “acted.” One wonders if this was an “accident” or a reaction borne of the “personal” contentiousness on the set.

Today the two actresses make nice and claim that there was never anything that could be construed as personal hostility on the set. They were and continue to be “good” friends. They just didn’t like the scripts, they say, thinking that they were “beneath” them; according to Happier Days, “The younger actors felt that they weren’t getting the respect from the writers or even other actors. It was a common complaint that people couldn’t respect what they were doing on Laverne & Shirley because people didn’t understand physical comedy. Sometimes the cast would throw the script into a trash container to humiliate the writers.”

Nevertheless, one detects that some evidence of lingering personal resentments remain. In the Emmy Legends interviews, Marshall and Williams profess their friendship and “sisterhood,” but when Marshall was interviewed separately, one gets the impression that there are grudges she still nurses; for example, it is obvious that she is still irritated by the fact that although Williams left the show before the eighth and final season, she is receiving “points” for syndication residuals from that season. 

At one point in their careers, Marshall and Williams each were being paid $75,000 per episode, which was a considerable amount of money in the early 1980s. But like the four “Monkees” in the 1960s, they were not “happy” with fame and fortune; they needed “respect” as well, or at least how they viewed themselves, quite apart from how the public viewed them. There were some who were familiar with the “problems” on the set and were mystified by the level of “unhappiness” from achieving what the vast majority of people whose dreams never come true. Happier Days includes this passage, quoting one of the actors from another popular show at the time, who saw what was going on at close quarters:

Pam Dawber, who was later on the lot co-starring in Mork & Mindy, remembers the problems emanating from the Laverne & Shirley stage. “We all shared a lot of the crews,” remembers Dawber. “And there was always a lot of gossip going back and forth. Cindy and Penny were just wonderful (acting) together, and I admired them so much. They treated me like I should not have been allowed to be on (Mork & Mindy), probably because they all knew Robin. Everybody was anticipating the show, and I was really not very good, although I got better and better. But in the beginning I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Being the young one, I just admired everyone. I had watched them on television for years and years before I ended up on the same lot. 

Ron and Henry (from Happy Days) were always darling and wonderful and sweet. Cindy and Penny to this day talk about how miserable they were on (their) show. It was not a good time for them. What a shame. They were making so much money and to ruin that experience. Being on a hit show is like catching lightening in a bottle. It’s about magic casting, it’s about the right words, and it’s about your placement in time and space. Whether what you’re doing is what the audience is in the mood for at the time. Seventy-five percent of being a success in this business is timing. And the rest is luck and brains, if you can keep it going. Not even luck, but the brains to keep the momentum going for yourself and make the right decisions. Actors that create problems for themselves, they are just miserable or they think they’re going to be movie stars or they want to get off their show. Oh my God, you are so lucky if you are in the success line in the first place. So many people shoot themselves in the foot. It’s so silly. 

And you see it over and over and over. You’re in your prime usually when you are in a hit show and you’re usually too young to realize that once that train pulls up to your depot, you think it’s always coming to your depot. You think it’s always going to be there, and it’s not. If you’re lucky enough to have gotten on the success train in the first place, enjoy the ride. It’s such a waste. That’s the way I always looked at the Laverne & Shirley experience. It’s such a happy show, a happy to watch show. And to hear they were miserable and competitive, it was just so stupid. What a waste of time. They were such a good team, they just so complemented each other. They were great.”

Penny Marshall did go on to direct a few popular comedy films like Big with Tom Hanks, but hasn’t done much since 2001, and like for Cindy Williams, her “fame” really goes no further than the nostalgia of people who remember them from that one classic television show. And for Williams especially, that “train” never pulled into the depot again; she did make a film called UFORIA that was released a few years after L&S that has some “cult” film value (well, The Conversation does too—or was that The First Nudie Musical?), which unfortunately has never been released on DVD. I did see her in a brief role playing herself in Julie Brown’s short-lived show Strip Mall, in which Brown’s character tries to extort money from Williams after finding a photo of her with a bowling pin thrust in her….And what a shame it is—for no other reason that they were two of the “lucky” ones in time and space, something most of the rest of us can only ponder with bewilderment. Wouldn’t we take their place in a heartbeat?

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