To hear him tell it, you might think that director Dennis Erdman’s entire career has been a fluke.
“When I was around 18, I got into the Broadway company of ‘Equus’,” said the New York City-born director, sounding more apologetic than proud. “I’d already done a little bit of acting. I’d seen the show and was very affected by it. So I showed up for an open call for understudies, got that, and because they couldn’t find anyone else--it was really by default--I took over the role.
“Then when I came to Los Angeles, I got a directing job, ‘Otherwise Engaged,’ at the Dynarski. They were scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find someone and offered me the job.”
Then, he said, he was helping cast two shows at the Mark Taper Forum when Joel Thurm, vice president of talent at NBC, called one day. “He needed somebody at NBC. Would I be interested?”
Such has been the charmed life of Dennis Erdman, former psychobiology major, actor, casting director (he resigned his post as manager of casting at NBC in March) and now full-time director. Earlier this month, his staging of Alan Ayckbourn’s British farce “How the Other Half Loves” (where multiple couples share a single set, physically and psychically bouncing off each other) opened at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood.
“I’m constantly seeing people who are doing something with their lives other than what they’d intended to do,” Erdman, 30, said. “For instance, does anybody really think to themselves, ‘I want to open a shop that sells picture frames or become a court stenographer?’ Thank God we’ve got those people. But I’d be curious to know how many of them really wanted to work on the Calypso with Jacques Cousteau.”
Erdman admits that leaving the security of his network position was not an easy choice.
“You only make one pass through life,” he said. “I had to give myself that opportunity. But it’s very scary. After this job, I’m available to the end of the century.”
So far, his stage record has been more than good: “Otherwise Engaged” won him a Drama-Logue award, and last year’s “Loot” at the Tiffany was both a popular and critical hit. (His “Loot” opened a few months ahead of the Taper’s staging of the play--which greatly reduced the number of actors who would audition for a lesser-paying Waiver project. “It was difficult,” Erdman said diplomatically.)
At the time, he was also plying his day job at NBC--which had its own attendant frustrations.
“Most of the time at the network, you work with terrific people and terrific projects. But every once in a while material comes along that’s insulting to anyone’s intelligence. You’ve got a producer who wants Tom Hanks and Teri Garr for the leads, and it shoots in Anchorage, Alaska, between November and March. You know you’re going to have to go to a leper colony to find anyone who wants to do it. And the universe of actors that a network is willing to go with to carry their shows is very limited.”
The stress that Erdman felt did not extend to worries about his own judgment. “You don’t have to be a good painter to judge a Tintoretto,” he said. “The reason I don’t act is that I couldn’t bring the character to life within myself. I always felt very uncomfortable, unequipped.
“I’d watch myself on TV and think, ‘There are people who could do it better,’ ” said Erdman, who played Carol Burnett’s son in the TV movie, “Friendly Fire.”
Crediting “learning by osmosis” from such directors as John Dexter (“Equus,” “M. Butterfly”), Erdman finally thinks he’s found the right career. Yet, he said, there’s still vulnerability.
“I just don’t have to get out in front of people and be vulnerable, but I sit in a theater, make decisions and people come in and judge those decisions.”
He is, however, a bit less vulnerable in the financial department.
“I never changed my life style from what it was before,” Erdman said. “I’m still living on a mattress on a floor of the same place I lived before. I don’t buy new clothes. I have a Honda. I have no regrets that I’ve chosen directing. Although two nights ago around midnight, when I was going through the garbage pails outside the kitchen at Spago’s, looking for good wine bottles for our set decoration, I was thinking, ‘Gosh. . . .’ ”