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An Actor's Life:
Filming at the Pepsi Bottling Plant with Character Actor Phil Leeds

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 they’d 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 friend’s apartment one evening.When he found out that I’d 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 who’d done the 16 mm filming for the Vogue/G.E. show in Schenectady. He greeted me like a long-lost brother. "What’re you doing?" he asked.

I shrugged. "Looking for work, what else?"

"Great," he said, "you’ve got a job. Come with me, I want the producer to meet you."

On the way to the producer’s office I asked, "What’s the job?"

"We’re 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."

"No kidding!"

"We shoot one a day. I think we can use you for two of them. They’re a lot of fun. Pays fifty bucks each."

"But Jesus, the Pepsi plant. Doesn’t 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)
Another of the actors in the two shows was a skinny little guy, about thirty-two or three, named Phil Leeds. I thought he was superb at comedy — I didn’t know he did standup. I used to watch his comedy timing as he rehearsed; I studied him, and we took the subway back under the East River to Manhattan together at day’s end. I’ve seen him over the years doing small parts in films and on TV. You’ve most likely never heard of him, but he’s one of those wonderful supporting character actors you’ve seen many times who helps whatever he’s in to blossom.

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 I’m known to the general public as what’sisface." 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 didn’t have agents. Agents were there, but were more in the nature of assistant casting directors for producers or they represented stars. Actors Equity didn’t 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. It’s 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 couldn’t have made it otherwise.

When I hadn’t 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 didn’t even have to have had a job from which we’d 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. He’d obviously been considering what I wanted, and probably what I needed.

"I know you’re trying," he said, "but you’ve 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 hadn’t made it in show business, I’d consider going to work at Jacobson Company. He and Walter weren’t getting any younger and I’d probably move up to a partnership pretty fast after I learned the ropes. I said I’d think about it.

My father said, "Richard, you’ve got five years to think about it, is that fair?"

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