Many aspiring actors wait tables, drive taxis or hold other part-time jobs while hoping for their big break.
Denny Dormody handles dead bodies.
Dormody, 69, whom you might have caught a glimpse of in 2013’s "Sharknado," makes ends meet between acting gigs as a licensed funeral director.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be doing this," he told me. "I’ve been blessed to be able to help people and still answer calls from Central Casting."
Dormody got in touch after my recent column on consumers’ rights in dealing with funeral homes. He had some helpful advice, such as how to pick out a reasonably priced casket. More on that in a moment.
Pamela Greenwalt, a spokeswoman for the SAG-AFTRA labor union, said it’s not unusual for performers to turn to unique jobs as they await their turn in the spotlight.
"They are by nature creative people, and the paths they find to reach their dreams are often creative too," she said. "We know of people who are tour guides, working in childcare, as dog-walkers or pet-sitters, in retail."
Dormody said he wasn’t bitten by the acting bug until relatively late in life. He’d lived in Australia for about 14 years and, after returning to Los Angeles in the 1980s, spotted an ad for movie extras.
The film was "The Grifters," directed by Stephen Frears and starring Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening. Dormody said he served as Cusack’s stand-in for one scene. He knew then that this was a calling.
Bit parts and background work followed – the sort of workaday jobs that allowed for brushes with fame at the edge of the limelight.
But such fleeting glory won’t pay the bills. Dormody dabbled in telemarketing and then got into funeral sales – pitching funeral services to the living.
He didn’t like it, the pressure to upsell and meet sales quotas. But there was something about the funeral industry that was appealing, a chance to assist people during a time of need.
Dormody became an assistant funeral director at various Southern California mortuaries. In 2011, he decided to step up his game and become a licensed funeral director. He now works primarily at Mountain View Mortuary in Altadena.
Dormody describes the job of a funeral director as being like a stage manager. He’s the one who makes sure everybody’s on their mark and all the props are in their place. He does everything from picking up the body to making sure it ends up in its final resting place.
Mostly, Dormody said, he strives to ensure that the people he encounters are well taken care of.
If anxiety is running high, he likes to escort people to the Mountain View crypt of actor George Reeves, who played Superman in the 1950s TV show.
"It’s an icebreaker," Dormody said. "It relieves the stress of the moment. People take selfies."
Not all funeral directors are as thoughtful. As I reported recently, undercover investigators visited 11 California funeral homes to make sure prices charged to grieving families were disclosed up front, as required by federal law. Nearly two-thirds of funeral directors flunked the test.
"That was very striking," said Lois Greisman, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of marketing practices. "It's terribly disturbing."
The FTC's Funeral Rule requires that funeral homes clearly spell out the cost of all services, which can include planning, permits, death certificate, storage of the body and coordination with the cemetery or crematory.
Funeral directors must inform you that you can buy a casket or cremation urn elsewhere and disclose that not all caskets sell for thousands of dollars.
"That’s probably the biggest problem, selling expensive caskets that people don’t need," Dormody said.
He suggested that people ask about so-called cloth-covered caskets, which are made of wood or fiberboard and typically cost less than $1,000.
Another tip: Don’t think that just because a cemetery has shown you a handful of expensive plots, those are your only choices.
Do a Web search for cemetery property brokers in your area, Dormody said. These are professionals who help buy and sell plots that are no longer wanted.
"I’ve seen people save more than 60% doing it this way," he said. "That’s an enormous amount."
Finally, resist a funeral director’s recommendation that you spruce up a service with lots of bells and whistles intended to honor the deceased.
"You honestly don’t need all those extra flowers," Dormody said.
It pleases him to play a small role during such a sensitive moment in people’s lives. Just as he takes pride in how his presence on a movie set, in some small, indefinable way, might improve a film.
"I’m never going to be Brad Pitt," Dormody said. "I’m just someone in the background."