THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE, 2.0

I’ve been working in a weird realm of show business lately, very new to me: the world of video games…

Actually, even “video game” seems like an archaic, last century way of talking about it, because the “video” part of it is so unimportant.  It’s all about the GAME.

Basically, when I get hired to act in one of these things, (and by the way, I am contractually bound hand and foot about mentioning anything specific about games, they are such a closely guarded, non-disclosure form requiring, BIG secret) I’m basically hired for my ability to act with my body’s joints and hinges.  They aren’t interested in my height, weight, age, color, girth, hair (luckily) or the length of my nose.  They just hire me for my voice, and my ability to operate my limbs and head.

Acting, yes… but in a weird way.

It’s almost like a medical procedure.  Especially when you walk onto the “stage” with its racks of sensors emitting a low-level light invisible to the human eye to bounce off the performers.  It’s like being in some kind of alien airline security chamber.

But that’s all fine; that’s just technology.  I can dig that.  What I find off-putting and sort of sad is what has been leached out of the actor’s overall work experience.

If they remove one more level of artistic involvement from an actor, they’ll just be sticking us in an MRI and having us do all our acting from in there, where every molecule of the performance can be recorded, to be manipulated later by faceless players.

Geez, do I sound bitter?

Here’s the deal: a lot of the excitement in Hollywood moviemaking used to be made up of much of what has been totally eliminated in the gaming world.  Like costumes, for instance; actors love to put on the costumes of characters, the shoes the helmets, the shirts with the big puffy sleeves.  If you are lucky, the white cowboy hat.  On a game shoot?  All gone.

In lieu of costumes, the actor gets ONE outfit, usually communal, always more or less the same: a tight, embarrassingly form-fitting black body suit festooned with velcro straps and tiny round reflective knobs.  It’s like being a vertical Gulliver covered with Lilliputians clinging from straps.

Sometimes you even have to have a few dozen reflective rubber dots about the size of a picture framing nail head, glued to your face, even on the tip of your nose.  If your facial performance is REALLY critical, you have to wear a rig around your head with a mini camera AND a small bright LED light pointing directly at you from about eight inches away. It’s like trying to act while being interrogated under a hot lamp by miniature detectives.

All of this ritual inconvenience has evolved in an effort to provide the final game character with an  armature that guides his motions in a realistic way, while he runs, fights, and blasts his way thru the particular universe of the game.  The character, fully rendered, comes with whatever outfit that he has been designed to wear, and the actor never even gets to touch it– it doesn’t exist in this universe, it’s a part of that whole ‘nuther world.

Props used to be a pleasure to hold, to handle; now when you are required to hold a prop, it’s Day-Glo orange, and only approximates what it represents; a cylinder for a rifle, a box for just about anything.  The fun props in all their glory exist only in that other universe.  That universe that also has all the interesting locations.

Locations in movie making have always held a lot of  glamour.  Stars would relish in saying things like, “I’m going to Istanbul to shoot Merchant of Venice II”.  Now even the location is in some file, and they can slide it under your avatar like a barber’s dustpan sliding under a pile of hair.  Boom, there’s the wharf, or the alleyway, or some other sector of some post apocalyptic environment.

(And by the way, WHEN did we all agree that our current culture is a PRE apocalyptic one?  Kind of negative, don’t you think?)

So, no costumes, no props, no locations… what else was attractive about being an actor?

Oh, well, a little thing called RECOGNITION, the chance for an audience to get to know a performer… well, that’s pretty much impossible if one looks totally different  from how he looks in this current universe of ours.

For instance if you happen to see me in the game I just worked on, which shall remain nameless (that’s actually the title of the game: Nameless.  It’s about a post apocalyptic time when government employees all mysteriously lose their ID badges) then you will see a totally different looking human being than myself; Someone taller, broader, stronger, meaner… and much less handsome than I.

Who’s going to know it’s me?  Nobody’s going to walk up to me on the street and say, “Didn’t you play Unidentified Employee #3 in Nameless?”

So, the romantic connection to the theater, that same theater that inspired so many actors to perfect their ability to convey the rich panorama of human emotions, that connection is virtually severed by video game methodology.

All the things upon which actors thrive, costumes, props, locations, recognition, (completely aside from grand ideas, delicious dialogue and lofty concepts not to mention a live audience) ALL these are tossed out in favor of monetizing our performances, and cashing in on our joints and hinges.

Begging the question, what is an actor in the 21st century to do?  If so little is really demanded of him, how much is he worth?  And if so little is demanded of him, how much of him is wasted?  And how much inspiration will actors be permitted to deliver, if the popular stories most consumed by players consist of how quickly soldiers, criminals and zombies can be lethally perforated by pistols, lasers and semiautomatic weapons?

And do we really have no better tales with which to amuse one another than with these relentless and bloody modern version of cowboys and indians?

You think of things like this when you are being fitted into a skin-tight black spandex suit with dozens of small plastic knobs sticking out of your significant physical landmarks.

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Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 9:53 am  Comments (16)  

Remembering Tom Bosley and Happy Days

Tom and Marion

With the recent passing of actor Tom Bosley, my mind has been flooded with memories from the times in my life that were dominated by the sitcom Happy Days.

The show quite literally changed my life and that of my family–my mom, actress Marion Ross, played her most defining TV role for the eleven years the show ran, and became with time, one of a very few icons of American small screen motherhood.

I guess one could say Happy Days was the Friends or Seinfeld of its day; frothy, playful, warm, familiar, unpretentious, with characters one knew and loved and looked forward to visiting every Tuesday night.

I was 12 or 13 when the first pilot aired on ABC, our channel 7 in Los Angeles. It was presented as “Love and the Happy Days”, the peculiar title referring to its forced inclusion as a chapter of the then popular sex comedy, Love, American Style, which always attached “Love and…” to each of its acts.

Tom Bosley was not in that pilot, but mom was, playing Marion Cunningham opposite Harold Gould, another fine TV actor who coincidentally passed earlier this year.

Ron Howard was in it, of course, and in a very circuitous, almost perpetual motion machine sort of way, was the reason the pilot was picked up and made into a series– quite apart from his substantial talents and early fame, Ron’s performance in that pilot which was shelved after that Love, American Style airing, inspired the young George Lucas to cast Ron as the lead in American Graffiti. When ’50’s era Graffiti became a hit, the then Paramount studios head Michael Eisner recalled the 50’s era pilot that was gathering dust in the Paramount vault and wisely hustled it onto the air, capitalizing on the white hot popularity of it’s lead actor in chinos and high tops.

Which hit created which first? American Graffitti? Happy Days? Answer: they both did. More accurately, Ron Howard did.

(This amazing bit of happenstance and salesmanship is detailed in Garry Marshall’s wonderful autobiography, Wake Me When it’s Funny, about his life as successful writer, producer, director and actor. I highly recommend it.)

I recall my very first visit to the Happy Days set at Paramount. The show was still shot single camera (as opposed to multi-camera, which it later evolved into) and was filmed like a movie, with long days and no live audience. I remember how dark the sound stage was, and how nervous I was about making any noise that might ruin a take.

I was aware of Tom Bosley at the time even though I was just a kid, because he was also the voice of “Father” on an animated series of the day, Wait ‘Til Your Father Comes Home. I was impressed that one actor could have two TV shows at the same time. Tom’s avuncular sarcastic delivery kept him working as a valued voice actor for decades. I don’t remember actually meeting Tom that first day, but I recall seeing his dressing room door and, with my friend Danny Sternfield, joking that perhaps an animated man would walk out.

I do recall meeting Ron Howard, who was very friendly and personable. He was probably 19 or 20, my daughter’s age now. He had already been a “name” since he was a little guy of about six, and had been working since he was three, if legend is accurate.

I was aware of Ron’s significant stature not only because of his role as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, but also because coincidentally, my mom had never failed to point him out to me when he popped up on television, I think with the idea of inspiring me to become a professional like him, to be successful, that here was someone who WAS someone… make note!

So, I was very eager and impressed by meeting Ron, and our friendship has lasted to this day.

Happy Days didn’t take off for a couple of seasons, and unlike today, the show was allowed time to find its audience and develop as a show.

When it went “Three Camera” (a misnomer, because there were never less than four cameras in service in a typical scene) Happy Days ascended into the stratosphere, and suddenly my mom was on a rocket ride, soon to become a fixture in the television firmament.

I vividly recall myself saying at the time that switching to a multi-camera format was going to “Kill the show”. I was so certain of it. ( I was very reactionary when I was a young teen.)  I’m really glad I was wrong.

Happy Days was a complete sensation. It’s hard now to describe the excitement audiences had at the time for the show, and especially for Fonzie– the magnitude of the shrieks when Henry Winkler was introduced at the top of each show’s filming were up on the Elvis meter. Women and girls got absolutely giddy.  But then, it’s also hard to imagine television with only five channels.

All the young leads, Ron, Don (then Donny) Most, Anson Williams (who was also a teen heart-throb at the time as a soft pop crooner) and Henry Winkler were huge stars that would spontaneously attract enormous crowds of fans whenever they appeared together in public. It was something to see.

Show creator Garry Marshall had, early in the run of the show, a brilliant plan to keep his actors out of trouble. He put together a softball team with the entire cast, plus some athletically gifted extras, writers and friends, and toured them around the country during the show’s hiatus periods, which were usually in the summer months.

Since this was the late seventies, with cocaine and other drug use rampant, and his youthful cast were earning fortunes, this bright idea that had many positive ramifications. The publicity for the show was tremendous, the boys became even better ball players, nobody OD’d or died from drug use, and my mom learned how to field and bat.

The camaraderie that was built on the softball fields and baseball stadiums during those tours infected the whole spirit of the show during the “Work” season, and helped to create the remarkable chemistry of the show.

Even Tom Bosley played softball. I can’t recall what position he played, but I do recall his casual, indulgent lope out onto the field, or his “Aren’t I a good sport?” jog off the field at the end of an inning, where he would light up one of innumerable skinny brown More cigarettes once he got into the dugout.

What a dream come true for an actor, I remember thinking at the time, to be on a hit show half the year, playing softball with your friends the other half… how the hell do you manage that?

Was I jealous? Not really. Actually, I felt as close to all that fame as I wanted to. I hadn’t made up my mind to be an actor then, was still toying with the idea of becoming a political cartoonist, so to be included in the hullaballoo was enjoyment enough; I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything. There was more than enough fun to be had, I felt wealthy with all the famous people around me who knew me well enough to say “Hiya, Jim!”

(Years later, I was fortunate enough to appear on Happy Days, in the famous episode that eventually resulted in the term “Jumping the shark”, as a young beach dude that announces the existence of that same shark. But that is a tale for another Blog.)

One time I do specifically recall Tom Bosley being kind to me was when he happened to be over at our house, probably for a party, and I showed him what I had been drawing. I loved to show anybody what I had been drawing; it was my only way to get any attention at all from adults, and what I was rendering at the time was a picture of the actor Art Carney, who was up for an Academy Award for a film called “Harry & Tonto”. Tom looked at the drawing and then said, “How would you like me to get this drawing to Art Carney himself? He’s a friend of mine.”

Of course, at the time, the last thing I wanted was to give this drawing away to anybody, including Art Carney, but that was still a very nice gesture on Tom’s part. I think I kept the little sketch and entered in a school art show, which was where it belonged, but I always remembered his kind invitation.

With Tom’s passing, a chapter has ended in the Happy Days story. I don’t imagine any more reunion shows will be in our future… but then again, I was wrong about the show going multi-camera, I could be 100% wrong about this too, and that would be okay.

Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 3:24 am  Comments (9)