Now that awards season is upon us–an Oscar to Robert Redford for his incredible performance in All Is Lost; take the statuette Cate Blanchett for what you accomplished in Blue Jasmine–it is time to reveal the unsung details of my brilliant acting career.
Discussions of my acting career are hampered by the fact that most people are unaware I had an acting career. This is probably just as well, the brilliance of my performances, to say the least, being somewhat in doubt.
Anyone who is ever involved in film at one time or another entertains fantasies about being up there on the big screen. For many years, my fantasy involved a tall, rugged loner astride a horse, not saying much, charismatic nonetheless, and, of course, irresistible to women. In short, I saw myself as a movie star.
Someone like, well, someone like Robert Redford.
(Not to pause for a commercial here, but in my new novel The Two Sanibel Sunset Detectives, that same movie star fantasy haunts our hero, Private Detective Tree Callister. Hmmm. I wonder who gave him that idea?)
As it turned out, the most accurate part of my fantasy–the warning I should have heeded–was the part about being silent. My problems as an actor began as soon as I opened my mouth.
Thankfully, the first time I was in a movie, I didn’t have to do much more than groan–and I had problems doing that convincingly.
In Heavenly Bodies, a movie I also had a hand in writing, I was one of a number of professional football players sent to the workout club that figures in the story, ordered to get into shape.
“You don’t look like much of a football player to me,” said the wardrobe woman, eyeing me up and down. She then handed me a pair of athletic wristbands. “What are these for?” I asked. “They’re to make your wrists look thicker.” Ever since, not a day goes by that I don’t look at my wrists and fret that they are too thin.
The scene I was in takes place at the point in the story where the petit young women running the club (called Heavenly Bodies) put the players through such a grueling workout that they end up collapsed on the floor in exhaustion. The scene would give our heroine (played by Cynthia Dale in her first film role) a chance to meet our football-playing hero.
When the time came to film the scene, us players all writhed and heaved away. As I writhed and heaved, it struck me that it looked as if I was writhing and heaving. It didn’t look as if any of us was the least bit tired.
Sure enough. When the scene appeared on the big screen, it looked as though we were writhing and heaving. It did not look as though we were exhausted. The worst writher and heaver in the bunch–and the least convincing–was me.
What’s more, my wrists looked awfully thin.
My next movie role featured me as an emergency room doctor, blessedly hidden behind a surgical mask, in the thriller White Light, another of the masterpieces I was guilty of writing. This time I had dialogue–the last thing, as it transpired, I should have been given.
It is at the end of the story, and we are in a hospital emergency room where the hero (Martin Kove of TV’s Cagney and Lacey) reacts to the fact that the heroine whom he has been chasing throughout the movie (played by a lovely actress named Allison Hossack), has just been brought back to life.
I’m supposed to signal this turn in the plot by looking at a monitor and announcing, “I’m getting a pulse!”
I wrote the line so I’ve got no one else to blame.
The night we shot the scene, I duly made the announcement, “I’m getting a pulse” with such seeming expertise that once again I began to think in terms of an acting career. I imagined myself strong and silent and rugged astride a horse. Not saying much, maybe “I’m getting a pulse,” once in a while.
Then we got into the editing room. Every time the editor ran that scene, my reading of “I’m getting a pulse,” seemed all wrong. Since it was the finale of the film, I didn’t see why any dialogue was necessary. I begged for my line to be drowned out by swelling music. No one paid any attention.
The premiere of White Light was held at the old Hollywood Theatre in Toronto, a vast auditorium filled that night with invited guests eager to see what we had produced. I arrived with my mother, and all I could think of was, “I’m getting a pulse.”
For the first hour and twenty minutes, the audience remained respectfully silent and attentive as the mystery unfolded on the screen. Then came the grand finale, the moment when Allison is being revived so she can live happily ever after with Marty Kove. The camera came in on me, I looked up at the monitor and said, “I’m getting a pulse!”
The whole theatre roared with laughter.
Of all the embarrassments one can suffer in a lifetime–and goodness knows I’ve had more than my share–nothing quite matches the experience of a theater packed with people heaving with unintentional laughter at a line you’ve just said twenty feet high on a movie screen. You want to run away screaming (“I’m getting a pulse!”) and hide, but you can’t. There is no escape. You are trapped.
The movie opened a week or so later, and I’m beginning to think, well, maybe my reading of that line wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe the audience reaction was merely the release of pent-up tension built up as the crackerjack plot (written by you-know-who) unfolded.
By the time Saturday rolled around, I had decided that my performance was fine. There could still be a future movie star in the making here, all I had to do was reassure myself one last time.
Late that night I walked over to the Uptown Theatre where White Light was playing. As I took my seat, I saw that the auditorium was nearly empty. A few stray souls with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Still, the movie unfolded smoothly enough, and the meager audience seemed attentive. All appeared to be well. I began to relax.
Then came the finale: Marty took Allison’s hand and looked soulfully into her eyes, willing her back to life. Cut to a close-up of me looking up at the monitor and saying, “I’m getting a pulse!”
The small audience inside the Uptown screamed with laughter.
I reeled outside. The cold night air hit me. As I stood in front of the Uptown taking deep, gulping breaths, my brilliant acting career was at an end. I stared down helplessly at my thin wrists, crying out, “I’m getting a pulse!”
On the silent, empty street, finally, nobody laughed.