Step Right Up
He had walked out of the play ten feet tall and growing. He was still stoked with adrenaline and grease paint and as he turned the corner into the high school crowd, his faced blushed as actual applause and smiling faces overwhelmed him. This was his first leading role and by all accounts, he had nailed it. The play was a classic and his role was considered one of the plum roles for any serious actor and he was just the guy to refine the role: Jimmy Reynolds was Pygmalion's Henry Higgins. While the play was technically My Fair Lady, Jimmy had reached back into the character's genesis to add much needed depth and character as not only as the pompous Professor of Phonetic, but as Henry Higgins the man. While still a high school play, Jimmy wanted to set a standard for other college-bound actors who would eventually replace him as he ascended to Broadway or the Old Vic, and tonight was the first of likely many command performances.
Jimmy was a bright star in a rural galaxy of rather dull stars and during his four years in high school, he quickly ascended and maintained the principal role of all things theatrical in the school and department. He led the limited stagecraft crew to innovative and impressive levels of creativity, he fought for script control (and won), he successfully led a coup d'etat to oust the archaic and dictatorial teacher adviser and made several slightly successful attempts at fund raising to improve the physical structure of the departments rehearsal and performance stages. By the time he had finished his final performance, a one-man interpretation of Waiting for Godot, he was proud of his legacy and the quiet understanding that he truly did leave it all on the stage.
His college and course of study was long since established and he jumped into the role of naive but energetic freshman with both stage-worn feet as soon as he unpacked his bags and organized his collected Playbills. Jimmy's experience with all aspects of the theater thrust him into a solid contributor the college drama society. He had surprising depth for such a young person and his desire to get involved allowed him to assume control of many aspects of the troupe just by his love of the art. He was a solid performer and during his college years, amassed a solid working resume of summer stock, regional theatre (his spelling), college productions as well as several more fringe productions generated by his peers and collaborators over the years. Once firmly grasping his B.A., he headed for New York with dozens of contact phone numbers and approximately three hundred head shots demonstrating several dozen well-honed and practiced emotive looks.
Jimmy Reynolds was not a prototypical theatre (his spelling again) type; he was a big, non-pale man with a raspy voice, a full face capable of eating all types of scenery and a crop of head which stood straight up with blatant disregard to both current fashion trends and gravity. This allowed him to be considered for the larger parts; parts which demanded an audience's attention and characters with both strong personalities but even stronger stage presence. Jimmy hit every casting call he could find and showed surprising resiliency for someone just out of college. He stood in line, endured the indignity of countless cattle calls, read for a wide variety of parts and ran lines with anyone nearby. He was working the second shift at a foundry in New Jersey so his mornings were wide open to travel the length and the breadth of Manhattan in search of anything remotely related to the stage. He rarely enjoyed callbacks but his personality did make impressions on casting folks as they realized he would fit in somewhere, sometime but unfortunately, not at this time. Undaunted and unbowed, Jimmy Reynolds kept auditioning and working for eighteen months until he finally got a secondary role on an off-Broadway show. The show, destined to be a trivia question at first, did fairly well for the second-tier and Jimmy found himself back into the world that he loved most of all.
After almost two years at the foundry, Jimmy's employers empathized with his love of all things Broadway and accommodated his schedule as best they could. They created a full-time job which allowed Jimmy to work any combination of forty hours in a week so he could maintain his benefits and still pay the bills. The foundry's work was hard and dangerous; Jimmy had started at the bottom, hauling heavy mold casts from one pour point to another, but his Midwestern work ethic and that crazy face quickly endeared him to the entire work force from the hardcore sand rats to the well-meaning secretaries in the front office. Many of them made the trek across the river to see him act and while a vast majority of them had no idea what he was doing, it was evident to a person that crazy face Jimmy sure loved being on stage. The kid was so enthusiastic and friendly that a few of the old school, hardcore union steelworkers made a point to travel into the city, with their equally dumbfounded wives in tow, to attend a fringe play or avant-garde exposition of his skills; they didn't know if they liked theater but they liked the kid, so it was close enough to them.
Jimmy continued working his way up the theatrical food chain in the big city. Former peers and collaborators began to be get noticed and as they began to gain their own credibility, they also made a point to cast their fellow struggling actors and performers in their plays and stage shows. Jimmy began to see the first plateau within his sights: making a living in New York as a paid actor. As a legitimate member of the Actor's Equity Association, he was a peace with the world around him because he was a working actor with an impressive, but still smallish, body of work. However, being in his early twenties, the trend was positive and looking better all the time. Many of his friends were playwrights as Jimmy loved to be around these creative but crippling personalities. He would love sitting in all-night diners, riffing bits of monologues and ideas with there wordsmiths, running lines with each other while trying to resolve some wooden dialogue or weakness in exposition.
During the middle of his third summer in New York and during a nice run of steady work as a minor character in a major Broadway show, Jimmy got a phone call from his agent. What made this surprising to both of them was the fact that Jimmy never was home and the agent rarely, if ever, called. The agent had no idea what his client (his term) was doing but sounded excited about some project and encouraged Jimmy to forgo the rest of his morning's sleep and come on in for a face to face meeting. As Jimmy agreed and began to head downtown, he began thinking how long it had been since he was meeting with someone who wasn't sitting in a playhouse, coffeehouse or theater. The agent had done him no good but also, had not done him any harm since he officially agreed to the partnership but he also wasn't too interested in bother the agent for work since his plate was full and he was happy. Fairly poor and living on the cusp of poverty but happy.
Jimmy spent most of his discretionary money on a cab with every intention of seeking reimbursement from his so-called agent. He was now a working actor, solely responsible for his own survival and had been thinking about finding new representation anyway. Most of his friends in the same profession were split on one of two sides of the whole debate on agents: either get one and browbeat them into constantly finding you general work and specific auditions that would result in an unexpected windfall for a commercial, easy-peasy stand-in work at an equity rate or make some connection which may lead to something worth getting excited about. When Jimmy walked into the coffee shop, he saw his agent wave him over to a booth.
"So, how have you been Jimmy? You look good."
"I am fine but hungry. What is so important that you had to wake me up and see you immediately?"
"You want something to eat?" said the agent as he slid a menu towards Jimmy. "You pick anything you want and it is on me. I would rather talk anyway while you eat and it looks like you need to eat something."
Jimmy was surprised, this might have been the first free thing he had ever received in New York City in the three plus years he had been there.
While the agent sat there slightly energized, Jimmy picked out a full meal and quickly told the waitress what he wanted (and who was paying just in case the agent changed his tune later on). He also began to drop the hint about the cab fare when the agent held his hand up and said, "Here is $100 for your trouble. You don't have to pay me back but just listen to what I have to say."
Jimmy nodded, put the hundred dollar bill in his shirt pocket and stared at the agent. This was obviously something important so he decided NOT to bring up the lack of communication, the lack of effort and all things related to the brutal fact that he had not received one tangible attempt at support or assistance to date. "Thanks for the money: the floor is yours."
"Thanks, Jimmy. Let's start at the beginning. Do you remember when I told you 'I would call you when I had something.?''
"Yes," said Jimmy. Since he was getting a free meal and one hundred dollars, he decided not to ask why it had taken three years.
"Well, I might have something. In fact, I know I have something."
"A television commercial."
"Television? I don't know."
"What do you mean, 'I don't know?'"
"I am a stage actor. I haven't been thinking about television."
"You haven't been thinking about it because up until now, it was not within the realm of possibility."
"True enough. Tell me more about the job. But let me order something to eat."
"Two days, six hours each day for two thousand dollars. They will try to film two thirty-second spots. And here comes the waitress."
"You are going to pitch cleaning supplies. The ScourPad™, the Zoom-Zoom™ spray cleaner and the Starfigher™ chrome cleaner. These are all products of ScrubBrite Corporation."
"Did you say two thousand dollars?"
The waitress was still standing there, listening to the conversation but not making any attempt at interrupting. Jimmy finally felt her staring at him so he ordered breakfast and requested a refill of his coffee. Once satisfied with the order, the waitress reluctantly left to get the food going.
"Yes, two thousand dollars. And don't cut your hair, they loved your head shot and want to make you kind of a wacky scientist thing."
"Wow, two thousand dollars for two days work. What time?"
"The days start at nine and end at three. You will have plenty of time to get to your off-Broadway show."
"I have two thousand reasons to do it and it can't be that hard to sell cleaning supplies."
"Why do they want me?" asked Jimmy. He had assumed some casting agent had saw him in a play and was impressed with his commitment to the material.
"They saw your picture and thought you could be a great mad scientist with a heart of gold and a love for everything clean."
"Oh. Well, a gig is a gig....I will do it."
The food arrived and Jimmy, now at peace with his decision, dived into his food. The agent sat quietly, drinking coffee, fully aware that this kid could be his long-lost ticket to a steady, impressive income. The agent saw the energy brimming out of the kid and realized when the American public got a peek at his crazy energy, it will be steady paychecks and fat commissions for everyone involved. As Jimmy ate, the agent reviewed the standard services contract, verified his fee was listed and paid separately, and made small talk until Jimmy finished eating and leaned over and signed the contract. However, Jimmy scribbled a note at the bottom on the contract that the terms were only binding for this single event and did not imply or construe any future obligations. Jimmy seemed like a smart kid and his small handwriting was impressive as well. He had no issue with Jimmy's caveat but he did think the kid was a bit paranoid. He didn't have the heart to share the brutal truth that he would likely get rich and famous being silly and memorable but not as any type of real actor.
"Can I get a copy of this?"
"It is a carbon form, you can take the yellow sheet. The company gets the top one, I get the bottom one." The agent split the contract open and handed the yellow copy to Jimmy. Jimmy reviewed it and was happy to see his qualifying comments clearly readable at the bottom.
After a few more minutes of small talk, Jimmy wandered out of the café with his hundred dollars, a manila folder (borrowed from a nearby lunching accountant who had an entire table littered with piles of invoices and paper) with his first acting contract and his own full stomach. It had been awhile since he had the sensation of fullness and as he looked down the street towards Broadway, he had a sneaking suspicion that life was going to change significantly but not generally for the better. He grabbed a cab, since he was flush with money, and headed to the theater.
It was a still a little early but backstage was full of his fellow actors, many in the same circumstances as he: no money and few options before and after a show. They hung around because it was free entertainment and a way to continue networking and sharing the trade papers and coordinating audition schedules. Jimmy walked in and put the folder and his bag into his assigned locker and sat down. He didn't feel comfortable telling them about the new gig but he sure did feel comfortable when he sat down and knew he was a working actor in a real theatre (his spelling).
A few days later, Jimmy's agent (at least for this gig) called with the specifics: there would be two days work with luckily no conflicts with his show. He had notified the Assistant Director of his upcoming job and it was an easy task to move a few people around. Jimmy's role was not key and while it was legitimate theater, his physical presence, similar to ninety percent of the cast, was not essential to pull off a successful show. Jimmy had been marked out well in advance and well-planned absences were either for auditions or paying jobs. It didn't take long for the cast and crew to know about his work; there are no secrets backstage and Jimmy's beaming face was not built to hide news. The general consensus was it was a paying job trumps all and once in a blue moon, one has to do what one has to do.
The actual shoot was exciting; Jimmy had not done professional television commercial work before and was impressed with the professionalism of the entire crew. The director was an old hand and it showed as he elegantly moved a large number of production pros through their paces without raising his voice or appearing to be overworked. The two commercials were witty; Jimmy was a mad scientist and spent a majority of his screen time fretting and gesticulating in front of bubbling beakers and impressively multi-colored test tubes. Both commercials had the same hook: ScrubBrite™ products were scientifically created by people who were mad at dirt. Each time Jimmy said "Dirt," his eyebrows would arch and combined with spikey hair and manic body language, the point was made in a fresh, funny manner. After several takes, Jimmy even had the crew laughing at his rendition of the still-unnamed scientist. However, halfway through the second day, the director called the shoot a wrap and thanked everyone for their effort.
As Jimmy was changing clothes and washing off the make-up, a Production Assistant handed him an envelope with a check in it. "Jimmy," said the PA, "Doug wants to see you before you take off."
Jimmy grabbed the check and shoved it in his pocket: this money was going to help out in several areas outside of standard rent and living expenses. This money would allow some debt relief from friends and family, a few acting lessons and going a great way to having him feel that he was a real, working actor. He grabbed a drink from the craft services table and went off to talk to Doug. He enjoyed Doug's professionalism and steady nature so it was always a good idea to make formal connections in this business because you never knew when or when the next gig was coming.
"Doug? You wanted to see me?"
"Thanks for stopping in Jimmy. I wanted to let you know I think these two commercials will be home runs. This character has serious legs and if you want, you can see some steady work for a long, long time."
"Wow," said Jimmy. "I knew the shoot went well. I appreciate the advice but let's see where these go. I don't want to get too excited about steady paychecks for easy, fun work until your prediction comes true."
Doug laughed, "All right. Let's wait a few months and watch them take off....and they will. I want you to start thinking about it because these will be huge and you will have to have come to some decision about the gig. If you don't want it, that is fine. They will find a lookalike in about ten minutes and your shot at well-paying and steady work will be gone. I am not here to decide for you want you should do, all I want to tell you is that start thinking about it because this will explode."
Jimmy shook his hand and said, "Great. Let's see where it goes but just between you and me...if it takes off, it might as well be me. I can always use this to pay the bills but still concentrate on my acting craft."
Doug hesitated and said, "Jimmy, if this takes off and again, it will....you will be rich, busy and never be able to get back onto a stage without two inches of makeup and a hat. If you do this, you will always be identified as the ScrubBrite™ guy. This will be bigger than Mr. Whipple, the Maytag Repairman and that Marge Beauty Shop chick combined. Just start thinking about it."
It is fascinating what you see when you are not looking for anything in particular.
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