An Actor's Life:
I got a few jobs here and there. In television, before it was unionized, I did half hour shows for thirty-five dollars, including seven or eight days rehearsal. Everything was broadcast live. There was no coast-to-coast cable, so theyd photograph the show off a TV monitor onto 16mm film (called kinescopes) and ship prints to stations around the country. Everybody the actors, directors, cameramen we were inventing and learning this new craft as we went. It demanded techniques of its own.
AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) was fighting with Actors Equity Association (AEA) over who had union jurisdiction over television. AFRA eventually won and changed its name to AFTRA. I met a radio director at a friends apartment one evening.When he found out that Id done some radio work in Nashville, and with a voice he said was a natural, he gave me a part in a soap opera that lasted about a week. So I now had two union cards, AEA and AFRA.
One afternoon while doing the soap opera, I ran into the cameraman whod done the 16 mm filming for the Vogue/G.E. show in Schenectady. He greeted me like a long-lost brother. "Whatre you doing?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Looking for work, what else?"
"Great," he said, "youve got a job. Come with me, I want the producer to meet you."
On the way to the producers office I asked, "Whats the job?"
"Were making a series of fifteen-minute drama/comedy shows for Pepsi-Cola. Shooting em on film at the Pepsi plant across the river in Queens."
"We shoot one a day. I think we can use you for two of them. Theyre a lot of fun. Pays fifty bucks each."
"But Jesus, the Pepsi plant. Doesnt the noise of the bottling machines drive you crazy?"
"Nah, they closed off and sound proofed a big section of one floor so we have a huge stage to work on."
Character Actor Phil Leeds
(Pictured left: actor Phil Leeds with Mickey Rooney)
The other day I read his obituary. He was eighty-two and the well-deserved long article quoted him as saying, "Whenever they want a funny old guy they call me. Nobody outside the business knows my name, so Im known to the general public as whatsisface." Possibly the most memorable part he played was in the movie Ghost with Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and that wonder of wonders Whoopi Goldberg. Phil Leeds was the apparition who appears to Swayze in the hospital waiting room.
Not having run into him in fifty years, I still, for whatever reason, felt a great loss. Wherever you are, "Hiya, Phil."
Struggling to Make it in Acting
When I was starting out, theater actors didnt have agents. Agents were there, but were more in the nature of assistant casting directors for producers or they represented stars. Actors Equity didnt allow them to collect enough commission (5% in those days) to make it worth their while to have even a limited number of clients signed to contracts. Its all changed now, and almost every New York actor is represented by someone who can speak up for him.
What I had thought would be an easy ride was turning out to be a very rough haul. The more I tried, the further away it seemed to get, like Alice through the looking glass trying to get into the house: every time I tried, I found herself walking down the path away from it. A job here and a few there, enough to keep my appetite whetted. Thank God I was still living at home. I couldnt have made it otherwise.
When I hadnt returned to the American Academy, the $110 a month from Uncle Sam ceased. I had a backup, however: unemployment insurance. For a time after the war, a ruling was put into effect by the federal government to help those coming out of the service get readjusted to civilian life. We didnt even have to have had a job from which wed been laid off in order to collect. You presented your honorable discharge and joined The Fifty-Two Twenty Club; that is, you reported each week, stood on line, and collected twenty dollars a week for up to fifty-two weeks. I became a loyal member. Twenty bucks went a long way then.
One evening, Dad said he wanted to have a talk with me. Hed obviously been considering what I wanted, and probably what I needed.
"I know youre trying," he said, "but youve picked a business where you need more than luck." We batted it back and forth for awhile and he offered me a deal. If in five years I hadnt made it in show business, Id consider going to work at Jacobson Company. He and Walter werent getting any younger and Id probably move up to a partnership pretty fast after I learned the ropes. I said Id think about it.
My father said, "Richard, youve got five years to think about it, is that fair?"