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November 14, 2011 - Austin Porter
A guy is wintering in Sarasota. He has a rash that covers his right arm from the tip of his fingers to the bend in his elbow. He makes an appointment with a doctor. Doctor gives him some salve and tells him to come back in a couple of weeks. Two weeks later the rash is worse. “What do you do for a living?” the doctor asks. “I work in the circus,” he says, “Whenever an elephant is out of sorts, I administer a suppository.” The doctor tells him that if he finds another job, his rash will disappear. “What,” he replies, “And give up show business?” -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I email L to see how he’s doing. Does he and his wife want to get together with me and my spouse to see “In the Next Room” at Shepherd University? Maybe catch a bite to eat before the show. He’d like to, but his daily radiation treatments make him tired. Prostate cancer. Call me in a couple of months, and by the way, G needs some people to do construction on a Steven Spielberg movie. You should give him a call.

Long story short, next morning I meet G at 5:30 in front of the Apollo Theater in Martinsburg. We pick up someone else, stop at Sheetz for coffee, and drive to Harpers Ferry. When we arrive at base camp in satellite parking, we eat breakfast. I read the Washington Post. I read the Journal. I stare at my nails. I regret not bringing a book; looks like the only work I’ll be doing is eating breakfast. I amuse myself telling off color jokes until I start to bore myself.

The guy we picked up, I’ll call him Bill because I can’t remember his name. Like most actors, even actors who haven’t acted in over 20 years, I’m self-absorbed. Self-absorption is an occupational hazard for thespians. In my defense, there is an actor from Reading who is SELF-ABSORBED, if you know what I mean. He can’t take a trip to the Porto Potty without making it sound like the second coming. Let me point out, he’s an extra.

Bill has a remarkable dad – RIP. He regales us with vignettes about his father. He tells a story, slaps his thigh and laughs. Unfortunately, he has so many of them that after a while his cornucopia of tales grows stale. Quantity lessens quality. I consider telling more jokes. I resist the impulse.

Why didn’t I bring my MP3 player?

At noon, we eat lunch: beef stroganoff and baked trout. I figure I'm paid $12.50 for eating. Construction is a $25 an hour gig. I later find out that extras earn $100 a day. A day might last 12 hours.

Around 1:30 in the afternoon, I’m asked if I want to take on a recurring role as a business executive. They give me a costume. I put it on. I wait.

At 4:30, I’m in a van heading down town. There are 4 execs. They film us in various combinations walking in front of a green screen. We’ll be electronically inserted into various scenes throughout the film as background. Less expensive than hiring hundreds of extras. The film is called something like “The Men Who Made America.” It’s a low budget, non-union, History Channel production. The young director is English. I guess Spielberg had other commitments.

G is hired to play a thug. He earnes an extra 100 bucks for jumping out of a carriage and grabbing a couple of people. Stunt work gets you additional moola.

I am in a scene at the train station. I ad-lib four lines. 1) “One hundred and four thousand miles to be exact.” 2) “Lucky you.” 3) “Five cents.” 4) “Deal.”

Then they let us go.

On the drive home, I start worrying about how well I’d done. Were the lines I’d come up with right for the era in which the scene took place? Did I say them convincingly? Did I underplay the scene? Did I over act? Dig I mug? What about my hands? Would they like what I did well enough to expand my role? Will this be the start of something big?

The Buddhists call this monkey mind. I call it crazy talk.

A week later, the four of us are sitting at a table in the John Brown house in Charlestown. An exec, not me, says, “We’ll take a vote.” We each nod then get up and leave.

Then they let us go.

Two days later, I receive an email from the company doing the casting. They want to know if I want to audition for a film called “The Men Who Made America.” Obviously, I made an impression.

And that’s show biz as I know it. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I’ve known 4 people in the biz. Thirty years ago, I was good friends with Steve Sweeny, a Boston comedian, radio host and actor. In “There’s Something About Mary” there is a scene where Ben Stiller catches his privates in his fly. Steve is the policeman who comes in through the window.

I was also friendly with Lenny Clarke. He was the fireman who says, “What do we have here, beans or franks.” Lenny had his own TV show. I’m told that he lives on the Vineyard married to an islander who captains her own fishing boat. Good old Lenny.

Bill Solo, a close friend from college, was Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. He opened the show in Boston and LA. He also performed the role on Broadway. Then he did a lot of touring: Sunset Blvd., Phantom and the like.

A dear friend Susan Goldberg is a bass player out of Provincetown, MA. Lately she's been working with Scream Along with Billy. You can catch them in New York form time to time.

One might ask, and I have, why them and not me? I like to think I had some talent. Thinking this helps me sleep at night, except when it doesn’t. That a 61 year old man has to hold onto this belief proves that I still have a screw loose. Having a screw loose is often mistaken for talent, especially in a third rate drama department. Bill has a degree from that same drama department. He is also an extraordinary tenor. And he can act.

I know for certain that I lacked the self-confidence, the single-mindedness, the monomaniacal ambition and the emotional stability to give it a go. I was too afraid that I might get ill and not be able to afford medical care, that I would end up in the gutter, alone and unloved. And I carried around in me this belief that anything I attempted would end in failure.

Not a recipe for success. I made a living in computers. Just makin' a livin'.


The road less taken made all the difference says Robert Frost. But the poem makes clear that at their split, both roads looked pretty much alike! And so every choice makes all the difference or no difference at all.

Vonnegut said that we are put on this earth to fart around. I wish I had done as much, you know, farting around. The Dark Ages of my life might have been less dark. Maybe not.

I’m being melodramatic.

In truth, we cannot waste our lives, we can only live them. Still there is that lump throated, dull stomach longing that plagues me with the heavy lidded sorrowful thought that I have, I have indeed, wasted my life.

It is a comfort that my wife thinks otherwise.


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