Hollywood's newest restaurateur, actor Wayne Rogers of "MASH," "Once in Paris" and most recently "The Gig," sat at a corner table, counting the lunch crowd, checking the service and wondering what madness led him and his associates (mostly clients of his business management firm) to launch the Columbia Bar & Grill.
"A producer friend, Gary Smith, called me up and said he drove by the place before we opened and we needed a tree. So we put in a tree. Great. A $10,000 phone call."
The brick-walled restaurant is an airy enclave at the corner of Gower and Sunset, just above the old Columbia Pictures studio, the house that Jack and Harry Cohn built. The other nearby food establishments are mostly the eat-it-and-beat-it variety. The idea is that there's enough radio, television, film and recording activity in the neighborhood to make the new place prosper.
It seems a characteristic ploy for Rogers, who has made a career out of seizing the initiative and doing the unexpected. He went to Princeton, intending to be a lawyer like many of his classmates. But he decided that the world was sufficiently supplied with lawyers already and instead signed on as a navigator on a well-traveled cargo ship.
Ashore in New York, he arranged to meet a theatrical friend in Brooklyn after a play rehearsal. Watching the rehearsal, Rogers now says, it occurred to him that it might be an interesting life. He asked his friend how you went about it.
Rogers has a way of concealing a high degree of energy, efficiency and determination behind an affable and self-effacing manner, making happenings seem more happenstance than they were. He auditioned his way into the estimable Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and emerged as a well-trained actor, further polished by the daily discipline of a soap opera ("Edge of Night").
A roommate and close pal in the New York days was Peter Falk, who preceded Rogers to Hollywood and who inadvertently led him into a kind of parallel career as a business manager.
"I'd heard stories about business managers who lost their client's money," Rogers said. "My feeling was that if I made any money, I wanted to lose it myself, to be the author of my own demise. I may have a slightly paranoid nature, a fear of losing control of my life."
When a business manager separated Falk from some of his money, Rogers helped him get a good chunk of it back via a lawsuit. In time he began helping other friends. "It started little by little," he says, "as our lives got more complicated. Then one day I woke up and discovered I had several people I was responsible for, and I was doing it with my left hand as it were."
Rogers now has a partner who handles the day-to-day business, relieving a certain amount of anxiety and guilt for him. ("I'm ill equipped to do it emotionally," he says, self-effacing to a fault.)
"This town is not as ethical as I would like it to be," Rogers says. "I'm not saying I'm a paragon of virtue, but it's hard for me not to be honorable."
One pleasing aspect of Rogers' business acumen is what it has meant for Rogers the actor. A few years ago he met the writer-director Frank Gilroy ("The Subject Was Roses") and they talked about a love story about a writer on assignment in Paris. At that point Alan Alda was going to do it. When Alda became unavailable, Rogers took the role and also helped Gilroy find the independent financing for it.
"Once in Paris," very modestly made (about $1 million) but shot entirely on location in Paris, got very decent reviews and has since returned a decent profit.
Gilroy had another script, based on his own experiences as a college trumpet player who thought briefly about a professional career but then decided he'd never be good enough. Rogers raised some Wall Street money for "The Gig," and it opened here this week.
Rogers himself isn't a musician, but he fakes a mean trombone and opens the film with a monologue as a television used-car pitchman who is Cal Worthington and Ralph Williams welded into one.
As Michael Wilmington reported earlier this week, "The Gig" is almost the classic nice little film--funny and touching, humane, accurately observed, universal in its account of the perils of having a dream come true.
Maybe a little less universally, "The Gig" is about the joy of making music--in this case, Dixieland bordering on Chicago-- whether you're any good or not. But it also has a hard core of truth, examining the point at which the musical amateurs are separated from the pros.
The movie's plot is that some friends who've been playing for fun for years suddenly get a professional engagement in the Catskills. The reed man wants to make a career of it, but the bassist, the one working pro in the group, sets him down, gently but firmly. "Dedication isn't enough," Cleavon Little as the bassman says. You have no doubt it's the message Gilroy taught himself years ago--music's loss, literature's gain.
Charlie, Rogers' character, has figured that out, too. It's a hard-edged but likable performance. Like James Garner, Rogers makes an easy naturalness look too easy to be acting. But performance is performance.
"Acting is doing," Rogers says. "It's not speaking, it's behavior. It's something happening, even if you're only listening. The part in 'Once in Paris' was very difficult for me. It was far from me, and for a third of the movie, until he meets the girl, he has nothing to act . To this day I look at it and although I think I hit the character, I'm not sure what I'm doing. But there's something happening in my viscera that makes you interested in that guy.
"Charlie in 'The Gig' was easier. Him I knew.
"Are we selling any pasta?" he asks the waiter.