I had been pursuing an acting career for about four years. It was my raison d’être… my reason to live. My passion. My joy. And my gut-crunching misery. My entire identity was caught up in being an actor. My whole life, every waking hour, day, week, month and year had to be about pursuing my career. Nothing else mattered.
This wasn’t a good method of maintaining healthy self-esteem.
I was ready for that deus ex machina to descend from the heavens, casting me in a Broadway show, TV series—or even an Off-Off Broadway showcase paying twelve dollars and fifty cents a week. This would be a major salary increase from my previous “job” playing a gypsy in an Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway show. The director had fired me, saying: “You’re not coming up with enough creative ideas. I want to like you. And I’m beginning to not like you.”
I had left a blossoming, yet soul-killing career on Wall Street… for this? To get fired from a non-paying, non-speaking role because I was an inefficient gypsy, from a production that had required five hours of rehearsal with no breaks, four days a week, in a six story walk-up with no air conditioning in the middle of July? It was hardly the glamorous life of an actor I’d envisioned—and it wasn’t paying off.
I feared I might be fated to spend the rest of my life picking up every stray penny from the City’s dirty, gum-streaked sidewalks, covertly eating shrimp and sushi off of half-eaten plates at my cater waitering jobs, all while trying to convince myself I was doing something I loved. I wanted to touch people, to make them laugh, cry, think, and feel. Instead, I was two steps away from Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s giant cockroach, lying forgotten in a dusty corner with an apple rotting in the middle of my back.
In spite of how destitute I was, my acting ability had become, well…. better. My teacher Steve*, a forty-year-old former soap actor with a caring demeanor, had taught me how to “breathe” into a scene. I’d make animal noises while spewing out every single syllable of my character’s line. Part of me felt imbecilic, but another part felt like I had opened up a key to a hitherto unknown ability. New depths of emotion and feeling colored my work. I left every class gobsmacked at where Steve was taking me.
After six months of encouraging me to breathe and snort my way through Of Mice and Men and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Steve decided to teach a “career class.”
“You know those signs on the agents’ doors? The ones that say Don’t Knock Without An Appointment and Do Not Enter Under Penalty of Death?”
His class of six students nodded.
“Ignore them. Knock on the door, introduce yourselves and hand them your picture and resume.”
This was music to my ears. In my mind, an agent was a part of a secret cabal. They possessed some sort of sacred, forbidden knowledge that can land an actor a television series, Broadway show or feature film. I envisioned walking down the street, people recognizing me, calling out my name: “I know you! You’re the guy from that thing! Could I get your autograph?”
I would smile shyly with fake humility. “Of course. It’s really all about you… the fans.”
I saw my picture emblazoned above the title in Steven Spielberg’s next movie. Images of hanging out on David Letterman’s set, talking shop about my up-and-coming starring role with Robert De Niro flooded my mind.
These grandiose, desperate fantasies propelled me forward on my mission to land an agent.
I started “making the rounds,” which meant stuffing my picture and miniscule resume into 9 x 12 envelopes and knocking on agents’ doors. I entered a building on West 57th Street and Eighth Avenue and took an elevator up to the 19th floor.
The crusty wooden door had a foreboding, metal sign:
DO NOT KNOCK OR ENTER WITHOUT AN APPOINTMENT!
PUT YOUR PICTURE IN THE BOX ON THE FLOOR!
This didn’t deter me. I knew the second the agent opened the door, they’d smile and say, “Where have you been? How come I don’t know you?” Then we’d sit down and discuss our million dollar future together.
I knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked again. Nothing. Then a third time—a bit harder. A rapid clacking of heels. The door swung open in a fury. A haggard woman appeared, her hair identical to the Bride of Frankenstein’s. Frown lines reached down to her elbows. I gasped in fear, but quickly recovered.
“Hi! This is my picture and resume!” I said enthusiastically.
She glowered. “Didn’t you see the sign?”
“What sign?” I said, faking ignorance.
She slammed the door in my face with breathtaking speed. I slipped my picture under the door, knocked again, and ran away.
Discouraged but not beaten, I walked to 1501 Broadway. It was a few blocks downtown and, from the looks of it, had been constructed sometime around 600 BC. I saw the Becky Bee Agency on the directory—anyone with a name like that had to take on a newcomer. I knocked on Becky’s door, fully expecting her to give me a beaming smile and warm invitation to enter.
My grandiose fantasies flew from an overheated 12 to a scorching 15. I would say, “I’m uncomfortable with nudity. If the role requires it, I will consider it. As long as my artistic integrity isn’t compromised.”
She’d nod and say, “You’re the boss. Would you do a nude scene with Michelle Pfeiffer?” As I paused to consider, she’d throw out a contract, signing me to a three-year exclusive.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
I knocked. Another old bat poked her head out, looking like an old macaroon. “Yeah?” she growled.
“Uh… uhm… this is my picture and resume. Are you…”
I was devastated. I was “making the rounds” through Dante’s ninth circle of hell, where sadistic, fire-breathing demons writhed in delight as they broke hearts and destroyed dreams.
But I was determined to continue. So I thrust my chest out, pulled my shoulders back and marched down the hall, a warrior armed for battle.
At the door marked John Kingston Agency, I knocked quietly. My shoulders tensed in anticipation of another harsh rejection. Mr. Kingston answered the door. He was my height, had unkempt dirty blonde hair and was dressed in a shabby yellow sweater. He was well-respected in the industry and had a roster of solid, working actors.
“Can I help you?” he asked kindly.
I almost started to cry. Choking back tears, I blurted out: “I want to get an agent and these people keep slamming the door on me! I’m a good actor and I want to work! I can’t take it!”
“Come in, come in! Sit down.” He motioned to his couch.
Was this… concern? Was he actually being kind?
“Thank you so much.”
I took this in. An agent was being nice to me.
“Can I do a couple of monologues for you?” I asked with a pathetic please love me expression.
“Of course you can, young man,” he said sweetly. “Let’s make an appointment for a week from today.”
I went home, practically skipping down the street.
I’m gonna make this happen. It’s gonna happen for me! I’m gonna make it!
Exactly one week later, I knocked on his door, trying not to appear as nervous as I was. My dreams might be coming true—I could barely breathe. He welcomed me in and motioned for me to take a seat in his office. It was a bit run down, but he had a name and he wanted to see my work!
“So. Whatcha got?”
My first piece was from Mass Appeal, where a priest-in-training lectures the blue-haired women and wealthy men in the congregation about their hypocrisy. My second monologue—which I considered my ass kicker—was from The Medal of Honor Rag: a Vietnam veteran reveals his deepest trauma, recalling how his fellow soldiers executed a bunch of Vietnamese kids.
When I was done, he smiled benevolently. I closed my eyes for a quick second and prayed he wouldn’t be brutal.
“You’ve got talent,” he said. “There’s something emotional there. But both pieces sounded the same. I need something with more pop,” he said, punctuating the word with the thrust of his fist.
I was disappointed, but hopeful—he’d said I had talent. That was one hundred times better than a door slammed in my face. I shook his hand, thanked him for his time and turned to leave.
“Oh, one more thing. I can’t send you out if you don’t trim your hair, wear nicer clothes and come on…. you can’t wear red socks with black shoes.”
This hurt more than the slammed doors.
“Yes, Mr. Kingston,” I said. And he smiled again as he closed the door.
Things have to get better, I told myself.
They did. But it took four more years. And not in the way you’d think. That’s another story—for next time.
*Agency names and professionals mentioned in this article have been given pseudonyms.