My most idiotic celebrity encounter came when I was an errand boy at Dolly Parton’s production company, Sandollar Productions, and they were casting Shining Through (1992), one of their new films. I was riding the elevator to our penthouse office on Sunset Boulevard, carrying Dolly’s lunch from Le Dôme. Next to me stood a very tall, square-jawed actor with perfect teeth and raven hair who complained about being late for his audition. Most of my actor friends were just like him, good-looking to a fault but not talented enough to get hired.
I knew the auditions were running behind schedule and told him so. He smiled and said, “That’s a relief.”
I thought: what a chump. He’ll never make it. There are thousands of guys in Los Angeles just as handsome as him, all seeking the same plum role. The odds are stacked against him, especially if he can’t show up to his audition on time. He didn’t wear a watch on his muscular wrist, and I nearly told him to go buy a Seiko, and be on time.
A couple hours later, I saw him again in the parking garage. He looked frustrated as he searched through his wallet.
“How’d the audition go?” I asked.
“Pretty good, but I can’t find my parking stub.”
My first impression of the actor was confirmed: an unreliable baby-man who needs mommy to clean up his mess.
“I know the parking attendant. I’ll take care of it,” I said.
The actor climbed into a white Corvette and I signaled to Eduardo, the parking attendant who opened the gate as the actor drove away. I felt good about myself, using my position of power to help a poor schlub who was driving his cocky car down a sad road to nowhere.
The next day at work, I did a bunch of deliveries and returned to find the same oversize actor standing in our lobby. He was talking to Michael Douglas about Douglas’s performance as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Then my brain rebooted and I suddenly recognized the 6’4” handsome actor I had written off the previous day. He was actually Christopher Reeve — fucking Superman in the flesh. How could I not have recognized Reeve? An American film favorite, beloved by legions of fans.
After that, I knew if I ever wanted to succeed in Hollywood, I must tune my celebrity antenna, and treat every meeting, even the most innocent, as an opportunity.
All great movie characters have one character flaw. It’s a hallmark of a good writer to add an Achilles’ heel that keeps men mortal and beset by mundane problems. Sheriff Brody in Jaws (1975) is scared of water. Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979) falls victim to his giant ego. Superman loses his super powers around kryptonite.
My key character flaw has been poison to my ambitions: I’m an awful networker. Like Zelig or Forrest Gump, I have the uncanny ability to show up at the right place and the right time to interact with the most important people at key moments, but my middle America upbringing always prevents me from parlaying these situations to my advantage.
Whether it’s working out next to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson at Gold’s Gym or joking with Josh Brolin in the parking lot of Whole Foods or running into Tom Hanks and Martin Short on a Thanksgiving Day dog hike at Will Rogers State Historic Park, if you live in Los Angeles long enough, you’ll cross paths with famous people in everyday places. And if you live in a popular neighborhood like Venice or Silver Lake, it happens like clockwork. How you handle these chance meetings can determine the fate of your career. It’s easy to meet stars in L.A. because they’re literally all over the street.
At a friend’s art opening, Tim Roth and I enjoyed a pleasant chat about art and his love of photography. His eyes lit up when he realized I didn’t want to talk shop or ask for an autograph. He was happy I treated him like a fellow collector, not an indie film icon.
Outside a bar, I spotted Jason Schwartzman looking like a preppy school boy waiting for his mother to drive him home after band practice. I struck up a conversation with Jason, shared a drink, and learned he actually was waiting for his mom. When his mother finally arrived, nobody noticed that Talia Shire — better known to the world as Rocky Balboa’s wife — had entered the bar. Jason politely excused himself to spend time with her. It was her birthday.
Then there was the rainy Sunday night in September when I went to see Patriot Games (1992) with my actor friend Peter. Peter was part-time hockey referee who dreamed of being a real actor and had acted in a low-budget Gregg Araki movie where his character was killed. Given the crap weather and the late showtime, the theater was virtually empty. Except for a flamboyant fat man ordering a large bucket of popcorn at the concession stand. He wore a purple beret and a silk purple scarf flung around his neck and shoulders. He was flanked by two Polynesian ladies who were stylishly dressed and acting like servants.
Peter stared at the fat man in shock, as if he’d seen Jesus appear from the sky in a glowing rainbow of miraculous light. “That’s Marlon Brando,” he whispered to me.
Indeed, it was Marlon Brando, sneaking down from the Mulholland Drive property he shared with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson to watch a movie among the common people in a Westwood theater.
“Let’s say hello,” I told Peter.
Peter was horrified at my suggestion. “We can’t do that. It’s Brando for God’s sake!”
We sat a few rows behind Brando during the movie. He chewed loudly on his popcorn and was constantly mumbling commentary to his twin servants. It was distracting. After the film ended, Peter and I visited the men’s room. Peter was giddy from being in the same theater as Brando. He gleefully praised Brando as “America’s greatest gift to acting.”
Just as we were zipping up, the bathroom door swung open and Brando himself strolled in. I turned to him.
“You’re Marlon Brando. You were great in The Freshman,” I said.
“What a piece of shit. I never should have done it,” Brando replied.
“My friend Peter is an actor.”
Brando glared at Peter and offered his ultimate wisdom: “It’s all lies.”
Then Brando spun about and left the bathroom in a rush, without even pissing.
Peter moved back to New Jersey a few months later. He started a family, and the last time I saw him, he had gained a hundred pounds and was selling life insurance. The only thing he’d managed to do was emulate Brando’s weight gain, no easy feat. Unlike me, I believe Peter took Marlon Brando’s advice to heart. As a struggling actor, he immediately understood Brando’s meaning: Hollywood required constant lies of self-promotion, and there was no pleasure in this. Real pleasure was most easily found in the comfort of food.
The mistake I made in all these situations, and dozens more, is that I never forged a personal bond with any of these celebrities, I never offered the promise of doing business together in the future, I never figured out how to take friendly interactions to the next level. A master networker would have told Brando, the Rock, Tom Hanks, or Jason Schwartzman that I had the perfect project for them. Would it be okay if I had my agent send it to their agent? It doesn’t matter if you have a screenplay written or not. It doesn’t even matter if you have an agent yet. What matters is that with your foot already in the door, you start a back and forth communication with them and get to know each other as people. The details will sort themselves out later.