This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
A few years ago, I was working on a show and we had, as a guest actor, an older guy. This guy was a comedy legend, of sorts -- he had been a writer and performer since the 1950’s, had spent some time on Broadway, in movies, on television in the early days. He even did some famous commercials. And he was funny.
But like a lot of those guys, he was also broke. A lot of marriages. A lot of alimony payments. Living large when the paychecks were coming and, for some reason, larger when they started slowing down. And he spent some time in alimony jail, too. And he drove a cab, where someone he knew from the fat years spotted him in the early 1970’s, gave him a job as a writer on a sitcom, and started the cycle all over again.
We hired him to play the part of a sleazy jingle writer, and from the first day of rehearsal, he played it perfectly. Fearless, sharp, totally committed -- a lot of people have struggled to describe just what makes someone a really gifted comic performer, but for my money, it’s really about that: committing to the material, taking it as far as legitimately possible, and playing it right down the middle, making every line and every action seem -- even if they’re absurd or over-the-top, or physically impossible -- not just realistic but real.
This guy could do that.
Until show night.
We would shoot the show at 7PM, in front of a live audience. And at 6:45PM that night, someone saw this guy running to his car with a panicked, desperate look on his face.
“I’m going to see my doctor,” he shouted to the PA we sent after him, and he drove off the lot in a squeal of 1978 Buick LeSabre tires.
And he didn’t come back.
We shot his part of the show with one of the writers as a stand-in, to a pretty confused studio audience.
And the next day, the fax machine hummed and chirped and burped out a series of hand-written notes from this actor. The first batch attempted to pass his totally unprofessional action off as a medical emergency. The second batch begged for forgiveness. The third batch admitted that there was no real medical emergency, just a total nervous collapse. And the fourth batch, which came in scrawled sheets, we more personal, more elegiac. More real. They talked about the early days of his career, the nerves, stage fright, the many comebacks, the many fade-aways, and the feeling he suddenly had, at 6:44pm the night before, standing behind the curtain and watching the audience load in, that it was over, or should have been over. And that he just couldn’t do it anymore. What he really needed to do, he told us in his final fax of the day, was to quit show business altogether.
So what could we do? We were mad, sure. The guy had seriously messed up our episode, and it was going to take a lot of work to recast, reshoot, and recut his part. It meant that the following week was going to be extra complicated. And expensive.
But we forgave him. We wrote him a note and told him that we understood. That there were no hard feelings.
It must have been hard, we told ourselves, to suddenly realize after forty years in the entertainment business, that you just couldn’t do it anymore. And when the studio tried to cut his episode fee -- fairly, of course -- we intervened. Pay the guy, we said.
And that was the last we heard of him. For a while.
A few weeks later, he got his second wind, I guess, because he suddenly appeared on another show. And then that spring, he did a pilot, which went to series. And he did that for a few episodes until it was cancelled, and then a month or two later, he appeared in our office. “I’ve got a great show idea,” he said. And he sat down and pitched us a series -- with himself as the star.
Um, didn’t you retire, we asked? Didn’t you have some kind of breakdown on our show that caused you to give up show business? And caused us a lot of stress and trouble?
He looked at us blankly. What are you talking about? You mean, that? When I had a heart attack? You’re blaming me for a medical condition? Call my doctor, he shouted to us, as he left the office. Call my doctor is you don’t believe me.
And that’s sort of the way the entertainment business is for all of us. We’re on top. Then we’re not. Then we are. But we’re always scared. And we’re never retired.
That’s it for this week. Next week, pilot season. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.