The Glut of Actors--Enough Already!

Barbara Claman is a thin, dry-looking woman who chain-smokes Marlboros and has the crusty attitude of someone who's spent the better part of her adult life around violence or blasted hopes, like those sepulchral figures you see at the track with faces obsessively buried in the Racing Form.

"I'm known as one of the brutal mouths in town," she boasts, in her rough no-nonsense voice, tinged--somehow appropriately--with a Damon Runyon accent. The analogy to racing isn't so far-fetched. Claman is a casting director (she casts for "Santa Barbara" and "Tour of Duty," among other shows) and the subject was numbers--specifically how many actors there are in this country and what constitutes success.

"Who knows?" she said. "Who knows where they come from and where they go? Out of 250 I'll see for a series, I'll probably come out with 20 for the producers.

"A lot of people think looks alone will get it. Sometimes they're right. That's why people like Donna Rice do it. Or football players. Do you think they get on shows because they're actors?

"It's a hard market even for the good ones to remain in."

She lowered her voice conspiratorially and leaned across the desk in her Sunset Boulevard office, cluttered with little toys and memorabilia of 22 years in the business.

"There's this man. I won't tell you his name. He was a top actor on TV a couple of years ago. Played every bad guy from crooked cop to sleazy administrator. In his 50s. A fine actor. But they just decided he'd been seen enough. They wanted new faces. Overnight he was out of work--through no fault of his own. He was at that age where there aren't many options. He got scared. Happens a lot. They get seedy. You can smell the fear on them. Once that happens, it's all over."

The Numbers Game

Figures don't lie--but they don't tell the whole truth. And they don't convey experience.

Who in his/her sound mind would go into a profession that guarantees a sub-poverty-level income for all but a relative few of its members? Who would think to go into a field of employment in which a certain level of training and skill is at the same time mandatory and immaterial?

Who would want to get into a line whose psychological demands are total and whose prospects for rejection over the arc of a career are virtually absolute?

Who wants to go on a job interview and have someone look you straight in the eye and in effect say: "No. Not your face. Not your voice. Not your personality. Not you!"?

And never hear from the casting director again?

Who would put up with this ego-bashing?

Enter the actor, laughing, cringing.

Nobody knows how many there are out there, but everyone agrees that the numbers are appalling:

The Screen Actors Guild lists 70,000 dues-paying members--with 90% earning less than $10,000 a year; 30% earn nothing.

Actors Equity, the union that represents stage actors, has a membership of 36,000; as you read this, 85% aren't working.

AFTRA--the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists--reports a membership figure of 65,000--with 70% making less than $2,000 a year.

These are the official figures, but they still don't net the real number of people out there whose dreams of stardom flood their restless souls and inflame their yearning to hit The Big Time. They haven't joined a union yet. They don't have a job. But in their minds, they're actors.

Nobody knows how many beauty queens, models, drama majors, community theater hopefuls, pretty young things, self-conscious hunks or stage mothers with kids in tow invade New York and Los Angeles with scrapbooks of homecoming ribbons and drama reviews holding their ticket to ride.

Nobody knows how many aimless young narcissists, or just the lonely, gaze at movie and TV screens and echo Mike in "A Chorus Line," who sang: "I Can Do That."

Nobody knows how many successful actors and actresses put their careers on hold after their energies and resolve--not to mention self-esteem--have been flattened in the crunch.

Callous Casting Directors

It would stand to reason that the casting director, that beleaguered figure who stands on the parapet between a production and the great invading horde Out There, would have the greatest hold on numerical specifics. But none of them know either. Ask and you get an incredulous shake of the head, or a you've-got-to-be- kidding smile.

They know that any speculation about numbers is an invitation to despair, or even cynicism (to which some are not immune. Actors share notes on those casting directors who treat them like dirt, and some of the more conscientious casting directors themselves are concerned over the emotional bruises inflicted by a few in their ranks). Success in the entertainment industry, particularly that portion that uses actors, involves enough paradoxes and variables to prevent anyone from telling anyone else that he/she doesn't have a chance.

At bottom, the industry is a collection of businesses and professions without hard and fast rules when it comes to hot properties.

The actor is one of the principals in the scramble. One may gain expertise from years of professional training and never get a job; another may make a killing out of a look. It's the actor or the star--the terms need not coincide--who most prominently plays the celebrity circus tent pumped up daily by our Gargantuan image-hungry media and its exaltation of gossip. And it's the entertainment industry that most apotheosizes America as the land of opportunism. And so the actors keep coming. And coming. And coming.

Thousands of Submissions

"There are times when you're not seeing people, but just making lists," said casting director Carol Dudley, a blond and amiable if slightly circumspect woman in her mid-30s whose dark, wood-panelled office is situated in a labyrinthine corner of the 20th Century Fox lot (she takes her fast-food lunch indoors and keeps her office windows open in an attempt to stay close to the reality of the outside world). Dudley works for Reuben Cannon Associates and tried to explain how she handles the volume.

"When I am looking at people, the number can go up to 100 a week, not including the 10 to 15 hours I spend looking at demo tapes and cassettes," she said. "I spend an hour or two a day reading mail, and another 15 hours a week going over submissions. We'll get up to 3,000 pictures or more per project, such as a movie of the week, or a feature--'Amerika' (a TV miniseries last season) was endless. We do TV, movies, some theater and a couple of PBS projects a year--that's our soul food.

"I'm a firm believer in casting actors, not models, since an actor modifies a script in a certain way, and as advisers, we get to illuminate a script in a certain way as well. My choice is my signature. I think a lot of the lack of standards for actors is attributable to SAG, which only requires that you say one line on the screen to qualify for membership, unlike groups such as the Directors Guild of America, where the requirement is much higher. I don't mean to slight SAG as an amateur union; it started small, when all its actors worked." (SAG's 1933 roster listed 2,000 members.)

"There are probably only 3,000 working actors, tops, which is a pretty grim statistic. Nobody would take up a scalpel and think he's a doctor, but lots of people pick up True Confessions and think they're actors. I think the British system is better. The emphasis is much greater on drama school training, and afterwards actors work 40 weeks in the provinces under an Equity contract. They make such low salaries in general that they almost have to get out of the business if they don't make it to a certain level. Here, you can get by on residuals."

About the volume she deals with, she said: "There are times when I wonder why I have all these people wasting my time. But you have to be careful about the way you treat actors. A little discourtesy has an awful lot of impact on an actor; if he's treated rudely, he won't give a good reading. I think a lot of working actors would give up some of their money if they could be treated with more respect. Even the press is guilty here: It gives the actor glorification or nothing."

'Most Won't Make It'

"You do get overwhelmed," said Dennis Erdman, a slight, reddish-blond 30-year-old who is manager of casting for NBC Studios. "Look at this." He slid open the bottom drawer of a file cabinet in his Burbank office. It was bulging with photographs under the category "New Actors and Actresses Between 16 and 20."

"You know most of them won't make it," he said. "The saddest thing is to see someone in his 30s who hasn't gotten any support, hasn't worked and continues to delude himself into thinking he'll someday get more than a one-liner. They come from all over the country. They wanna be TV stars, but they don't want to build the foundation for the type of life they're going to face. You can usually spot them. Still, we're not psychics.

"Sometimes I feel it's a mistake to be supportive of anyone and everyone who comes in this office. But actors are so vulnerable. They come in with their hearts in their mouths."

Erdman, who shares a group of offices with several other casting directors, will see 1,500 people a month if he's working on a feature film. For a nationwide talent search earlier this year for new actors (what he calls "The new Michael J. Fox out there who doesn't know about contacting a casting director") he saw 2,000 a day.

Periodically those photos will have to be dumped to make way for more up-to-date arrivals. They're part of an actor's working portfolio, an indispensable 8 by 10 calling card that costs up to $200 a batch (for only one example, Quality Photo, a mid-size Hollywood photo lab, takes 75 orders a day) and is offered in silent appeal to any agent or casting director who might take notice. The pert blond woman with eager grin. The tousled siren. The young man with the Actors Studio glower and the three-day stubble made de rigueur in young hopefuls by the success of Don Johnson in "Miami Vice."

Almost all those pictures are so carefully posed and lit, so studied in their attitudes, that they're reft of any suggestion of spontaneity. Yet their eyes always catch yours with the almost palpable message: Please like me.

Erdman pointed to a shelf of videotapes perched over a blank TV set.

"See those tapes? They go back to 1978. They show auditions by Madonna, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and Whitney Houston. None of them got the job then. They weren't right, or they weren't ready. On the other hand, my colleague Peter Golden found a girl in Arkansas who hadn't done anything. We flew her out here to do a pilot. She was fantastic, but the pilot didn't sell. We flew her out for another, but she wasn't right. But someday she's gonna hit it big."

Erdman, whose background is in the theater (he directed "Loot" last year at the Tiffany), is one of the few pros who doesn't put a high premium on training.

"A Juilliard or American Conservatory Theatre-trained actor can be very proficient but lack humanity," he reflected. "Conversely, someone without training can have humanism, sexuality, humor. Meg Tilly is completely untrained. But she's an actress. She's appealing, vulnerable, and doesn't get in her own way. Something an actor is not is demonstrative, posturing and decorative, without grace and delivery in execution."

Are casting couch auditions still an unacknowledged practice: "Not really. But I'll tell you actors can be very seductive. It doesn't happen if an actor doesn't want it to happen. Besides, there's too much money invested in these shows.

"What's probably worse is some of the commercial service agencies that promise to offer professional training and advice but instead, like parasites, exploit actors who don't know the town."

Actor's Vulnerability

Mark Malis, a taciturn, bespectacled man who's head of TV casting for Universal Studios, (he's currently casting a movie called "Desperado" and a pilot titled "Azimov's Probe"), sees between 25 and 300 actors a week and estimates that "there are probably no more than 6,000 people who comprise the working pool of actors, from leads to people who manage to make a living doing one-liners.

"This is probably the most competitive profession in the world. Not everybody has the determination and discipline it takes--not counting natural aptitude. I have a lot of compassion for actors.

"Years ago I studied with Tracey Roberts' Workshop to learn more about the process of acting. One night she ran an improv and told one student: 'You'll be an actor going to see this big agent.' She told the rest of us: 'Cut him to pieces.' We stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning with a young man who wanted to end it all.

"Right then and there it created an image of the actor's vulnerability that I'll never forget."

Nightmare of Open Calls

"Sometimes I'll bring in a person who gets a good review in the trades or Drama-Logue," said Penny Perry, a tall, brisk, fair-headed woman who has cast movies of the week such as "The Lone Star Kid" and "Can You Feel Me Dancing?," and feature films such as "Midnight Express" and "In the Mood." "I will open any submission. It's a nightmare, but every once in a while you will find a new face. Sometimes people won't pay attention to what you want and send in a submission anyway. For example, we're casting for someone to play Duke Ellington. . . . "

She held up a submission--a picture sent by a white male--with a self-explanatory look of reproach.

"I've had open calls when I'm desperate. They're a nightmare, but I once found a lead in an open call. They're usually the young actors who don't have agents. We also look in schools--for 'Reuben, Reuben,' we discovered Kelly McGillis at Juilliard."

Perry acknowledged that luck is sometimes a real factor in who gets a part. "Fionnula Flanagan recommended Timothy Hutton for 'Ordinary People.' I'd been looking for a long time. When Elizabeth McGovern came in without an appointment, the secretary asked her to leave. I just happened to have to go to the bathroom at that moment and came out. I took one look at her and saw that she was right."

"I was looking a long time for an actor and approached someone in a restaurant to read," said Donna Lee, a colleague with whom Perry was collaborating at CBS Studios in Studio City. "He didn't believe me. I think he thought I was hitting on him."

"Yes, I've asked people to read in 31 Flavors," Perry quipped.

"We once heard a box-boy," said Lee. "Those cliches are often true. That's why so many people come out here."

"The only way you can believe in yourself is by training, and making connections," said Perry. "It's easier for men. Once women get into their '30s, it gets difficult.

"Some of our best actors are the most unstable--they don't have a strong self-image. People who don't come from L.A. or New York have no idea what it's like here. It's no wonder that a lot of producers and directors don't like actors. But the very thing we look for in people, we kill by not taking the time to make them feel good about themselves."

Perry estimated that in doing 10 films a year, she could very well be seeing up to 25,000 people.

"My family was in show business. I was a singer. I'm married to an actor. When you go home, you never want to see what's been done to someone." She shook her head. "Years ago, my husband had a sweet, open, innocent quality. Being in this business has gradually knocked that out of him. It's a quality that's impossible to maintain here for long."

Success Story, But . . .

"Hmmm. Maybe that's why I haven't worked in a while," mused Dwier Brown. "I think I had that quality once. Maybe something has happened that shows and I haven't recognized it."

At 28, Brown is an ideal all-American type. He's tall and sinewy, with a strong, lean profile, but his face often generates an almost poetic tranquillity (virtually every casting director interviewed recalled him favorably from his first and most prominent role as one of the brothers in "The Thorn Birds").

Brown's career makes the classical progression from small-town hope to big-city disenchantment. He grew up in Wadsworth, an Ohio farm community of 300, and discovered an affinity to the theater at Ashland College. In Chicago he joined the celebrated Second City improvisational company and did some TV work as well. In 1982 an agent sent him and several actors to Los Angeles to try their luck, and after a relatively short stay, he was cast in "Thorn Birds."

"The casting was a big deal," he recalled. "I didn't realize I'd scored a coup. I was working with all these actors I'd admired for so long, like Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Chamberlain and Philip Anglim. I felt like a puppy dog. After that I played Jarvis in the live NBC telecast of 'Member of the Wedding.'

"At the time, I didn't know why people were casting me. I didn't feel I had control over my craft. This led to self-doubt. Success had come so easy that I felt I could drop out and study how to get it right, and get right back in.

"There was a naive openness I had then, coming off the farm, being star-struck by the enormity of the business. I think people recognized the absence of that jaded knowledge of the dark side of Hollywood. But even though I'd been a part of one of the biggest film projects in L.A., I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. I was working with Howard Rollins, who to me is the epitome of a real actor in the way he knows how to build a role and work with a director. I didn't think I could consider myself creative until I could do a role that didn't make me feel as though I was just playing myself. I guess that's a Midwestern trait, the feeling that you're not worthy."

Brown decided to take acting classes. "I took a Sanford Meisner American Method technique, which is exciting if you're Robert DeNiro. But sometimes it seemed too much like therapy. The teacher had too many skeletons in the closet--a lot of teachers teach because they're not working, and they convey a bitterness. I felt further undermined."

Brown has worked occasionally, making commercials and playing roles in TV shows ("Fall Guy," "Capitol," "Twilight Zone"). Many actors would be of the opinion that the Dwier Brown story has a happier ending than most. But an observer who thinks he has the potential for being a major American actor would feel otherwise. Brown has gone into metaphysical studies, which is not uncommon for actors thrashing around in search of some sort of a psychological and cultural base.

"I'm now involved in a self-study course in miracles and in being in control of your own thoughts. When an audition goes wrong, you feel stupid, a failure. The thought that you're worthless leads to a lot of pain."

Brown remains wary of the Hollywood system and its psychic ravages, what he calls "the culminating weight of a huge machine . . . no one generally wants to hurt anyone else, but the numbers, and the dollars--they're not the kindest thing. I've been luckier than most. You have to be so many different faces; you have to be able to market yourself. L.A. is such a transient place, and the movies are a transient medium that don't often reflect real life. It's hard not to get lost."

'A Courageous Road'

"How many are there out there? I'd like to know," said Eugene Blythe, who is visibly pained by discussing the condition of the American actor. Blythe, 43, is a former New York stage actor (he was in "Hair" and "The Unknown Soldier and His Wife") who is now head of TV casting for MTM Productions.

He casts for "St. Elsewhere" and for MTM's movies (he did "Carly's Web" and "Just Between Friends"), and sees up to 50 actors a week in addition to holding open calls and sorting through 2,200 pictures and resumes per episode ("I meet more people when I'm not casting. The more names you know the more valuable you are"). Otherwise his job is mainly administrative.

"Acting never meant that much to me personally," he said. "It has to be everything or else it's a 50-cent-an-hour job. I think it's a very courageous road to take. It involves so much rejection. The medium says: 'Don't take it personal,' but it keeps doing personal things to you.

"It's hard to keep optimistic on a day-to-day basis. It's a rough life unless you have a focus and a support system, which the industry doesn't provide. You have to give up a certain amount of your creative soul to keep on. I always tell young artists: 'Keep your integrity; don't do just anything for a job.' But this town does things to you in small gradations."

Blythe agrees with Dwier Brown that often the worst thing that can happen to someone is an instant success because it never prepares one for the inevitable let-down, and that the best thing an actor can do is to concentrate on training, because that at least sustains the actor's identity as an artist. Very often, that's all it does.

"MTM wants real actors, which cuts about 60% of the people out. This town doesn't demand anything except to be attractive because TV is about soap and paper products. It's easy to get lost in Hollywood. In New York, they'll slam the door in your face. In L.A. they'll nice you to death.

"We all come to the end of the line sooner or later. We lose our looks, or that trendy thing. If you haven't built your craft, how do you survive to develop a decent, interesting, creative life? There are endless examples of pretty young people seized upon by so many types, not just sexually, but financially, by managers, agents. The actors you respect, like Robert Duvall, are people who've been able to hold on to their truth in life. I often wonder what happens to the rest."

Hope for a Big Score

Sheila Manning, one of Hollywood's busiest commercial casting directors, sits like a general in a battlefield command post. Her West Hollywood office, with its center desk overrun by papers and flagged manila folders, its unvarnished shelves supporting stacks and stacks of photographs (she received 4,000 submissions in one week for only two commercials), and its plastic wallboards with numbers written by grease pencils, has an improvisatory look. Even her black leather chair, whose arms are split and bursting with foam rubber stuffing that resembles angel cake, appears to have been requisitioned in haste.

Nissan, Mervyn's, 7-Up and Alpha Beta are some of the client names written on the board, with the number of characters needed to fill up their commercial rosters. Manning estimates that sometimes she sees 2,000 people a week, 104,000 a year (for the Nissan account alone, she'll send over 1,000 auditioners in a week). Out of the 2,000 she submits for all accounts for the week, 130 will be hired.

"Up until a few years ago we had a small corps of actors who looked straight but acted funny, and they worked," she said. "Now we're in a real people, vignetty period, and a lot of them aren't working.

"Life is hell for these people. I think the thing that keeps them going is the thing that keeps gamblers going--the hope for a big score. That, and there can be an enormous reward for doing very little. My kid did commercials to help pay his way through school. Ten years later, he's still getting residuals. I know of women who become mothers just to get their kids into show business."

Manning's characteristic expression is one of bemusement. (She claims to enjoy the commercial volume because "I have a low threshold of boredom.")

But at this observation she shrugged and looked a bit sour. The numbers may offer a rush, but not if you contemplate their meaning.

The New York Mood

"I started doing this 18 or 19 years ago," said Juliet Taylor in her relatively spartan, neatly appointed office overlooking Manhattan's 57th Street. "I look back on my list and wonder where so many of these people have gone. Most people, when they decide to become actors, have no idea what the business is really like. Some have their egos in place; they can take the ups and downs of being a pawn. Then there are some who're incredibly needy. They always want to say 'Oh, he loved me.' Actors are always saying that. Most actors, no matter how successful, are never confident about where their next job is coming from."

Taylor, a soft-spoken woman with short, dark-blond hair, has an East Coast understated stylishness. More recently she has worked on "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields," but her celebrity in the casting business is in her exclusive association with Woody Allen, with whom she works each year.

"In my experience the mood is different in New York," she said. "Here, they love to audition and train. In California, the business gets in the way. There are givens, such as the amount of money an actor made in his last picture, which seem like they're written in stone. Here they're just items of information.

"I was working for (director) Louis Malle in L.A. and read actors in a suite of offices. It was really 'Day of the Locust,' all these girls who came to Hollywood to be Marilyn, to be stars. They seemed so idealistic, so fragile, with not a whit of training.

"Mike Nichols made a statement once--I'm paraphrasing--that a lot of male actors get a little crazy as they get older, or at least more difficult. He has the theory that at some deep level they consider acting unmanly--you're not in control. It has to do something to you to go through life with your hat in hand. Women don't feel that as much. I guess it's the way we've been raised."

Taylor estimates that her office sees between 10,000 and 20,000 actors a year. "But I have absolutely no idea how many, really."

Keeping in Shape

At the bottom of this monumental heap of numbers may lie a single origin for their existence: the search for an identity, whether real or fantasized. At 53, Peter Dennis is enough of an anomaly to have had an exceptionally rough time of it in an industry whose standards are the more merciless for being so undefined.

Dennis is a British actor with suntanned good looks and salt-and-pepper-colored hair who has the suavity and elan of the born raconteur. One can easily picture him holding forth at some Malibu sundeck brunch, impeccably dressed in a blazer and white flannel slacks in the manner of a latter-day David Niven. In fact much of the local acting community has taken him into its heart--Anna Strasberg virtually handed over her Actors Studio theater for his one-man show, "Bother," a compendium of tales from Winnie-the-Pooh that later moved to the Coronet and drew rave notices--but not enough business to keep going.

On an autumn afternoon Dennis stood in his unit of the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, that unofficial Southern California halfway house for show-biz transients (he is financially supported by his wife, who lives and works in London). He had just returned from a tennis match. There was a bicycle in the living room. He was dressed in tennis shorts and a white sports pullover. He jumps rope daily, reciting choruses from "Henry V" or the Liverpool Poets.

"I keep in shape because the worst part of this life is the emotional and mental pressure," he said. A doily draped over his TV set bears a quote from Queen Victoria: "There is no depression in this house. . . . We are not interested in defeat. . . . They do NOT exist."

In his conversation you pick up the actor's characteristic mix of bravado and despair, of hope and mystification, as he tried to make sense of his attempt to turn an American sabbatical into an actor's success. "I'm $3 in pocket, but here I am in sunny Southern California. I have no complaints."

In fact he had many complaints, centering largely on the economic disparity between screen roles and live performance (he narrated a portion of the Bella Lewitzky program during the L.A. Arts Festival and took home a poster for payment), and in the struggle to make agents see the actor as artist ("an agent was complimentary but told me I was in conflict with another actor. 'Does that mean we're both talented?' I said").

Still, there's a certain decorous charm to this figure who says: "I'm an actor who likes to entertain people." His desire to please is unflagging and takes the form of anecdotes and comical embellishments (he lumbers and puffs out an ursine belly as he recites, from "Bother," "A bear is short and fat, something not to be wondered at").

He told a story of a post-performance gathering at his dressing room that revealed more about the actor's psyche than any voluminous biography or statistical survey.

"An 8-year-old boy sidled up to me through the crowd." Dennis became the solemnly purposeful little boy, a bit cowed by this tall forest of surrounding adults but undeterred from his mission. "He shook his head slowly and said, in this deeply serious manner: 'You did a great job, reading those stories to me.' Then he slipped away. 'Come back,' I wanted to say. 'Who are you? Come back! ' "

For an instant he had realized one of the actor's dreams: In someone else's innocent imagination, he had been recognized.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°