Thanks to the magical wonder of divorce, I’d spent summers with my dad in Santa Barbara and the rest of the year with my mom in…. um… wherever we were living at the time. The “formative years” were spent in Norman, Oklahoma. I do not mean this to be condescending when I say it is a great place to be from. I have great friends from there. Boy Scouts, the continuity of the same kids from 4th to 12th grade. We were fortunate that we went from super poor to upper middle class and I had as fine high school experience as one could probably expect.
Santa Barbara had a tremendous summer theater program called Youth Theater. I started doing plays there when I was 11. The first one was a Pro-Am production of Our Town. John Ritter as George, Sian Barbara Allen as Emily. The Stage Manager played by Woody Chamblis whose big claim to fame was playing Sgt. Pepper in the dreadful movie. This production is where I became friends with Tony Edwards, Eric Stoltz and a legion of other folks who have all had varying degrees of success in the showbiz.
We all ended up in a production of “Oliver” years later and became fast friends and, while I was in high school, a manager (insert intense controversy here) began representing them – and Tony, Eric, Mike Sharrett, Kathleen Wilhoite and our other buddy, Scott Drnavich had acquired agents and were getting work in commercials and T.V. shows. I figured “if they can do it, so can I” so I decided that after a summer of sex and beer, I would head to L.A. to seek my fortune.
I moved to Los Angeles early September, 1980 when I was 17. The plan was that Eric, Tony, Scotty and I would rent a house that Dee Jacoby owned. (The Jacoby kids were on every T.V. show in the 70’s.) It was supposed to be ready for us mid-September, but after two months of all of us living in a one bedroom apartment across the street from USC where Tony & Eric were going to school, we realized that the house would not happen. Scott and I ended up in a two bedroom slum by Macarthur Park. That evolved to a roach infested penthouse near Olympic and Vermont. Then, Eric and girl he went to USC with named Ally Sheedy and I ended up escaping and renting a three bedroom house in Van Nuys.
Oh, and my car and everything I owned was stolen after the first month here. But that’s a whole other thing…
There are three-plus years of intense struggle involving lots of mac & cheese, jobs at Shakey’s, The Chinese Theater, parking cars and a bar called Ports. But today, we will fast forward to:
1984. NOT THE NOVEL. NOT THE ALBUM. ME. ME. ME.
Nights & weekends, I was parking cars for Executive Parking at Bundy & Wilshire. My supervisor was younger than me and his other job was to let me know that I would never make it as an actor. Nice guy. I had begun taking acting super seriously (maybe too seriously) and was studying at The Loft Studio. Kathleen Wilhoite and I were roommates in an apartment at 4433 Murietta in Sherman Oaks. We paid a whopping $200/each for rent. I’d left my gig as Floor Captain at the Chinese Theater where I was pulling in $3.65/hr for the car parking gig where I made 3.75/hr PLUS at least $5 in tips a night. The super cool thing that Bill & Peggy did at The Loft was let me take class for free. Very cool.
I had gotten an agent after my first year. Here’s how: I sent my picture and a letter, listing all the musicals I’d done in Santa Barbara and Norman to 50 agents. I received two replies – a crookedly mimeographed “thank you but get lost” letter from Abrams/Rubaloff (now Abrams? Or are they done?) and a call from a lady named Booh Schut at Sutton Barth & Vennari. Eric called them Sudden Birth & Abortion. I called them Sutton Barth and Ignore Me. “Would you send me up on comedies?” “We don’t think you’re funny.” I had gotten my SAG card and had done a couple speaking roles on T.V. shows. As it is now, Eric had championed me for gigs and was responsible for me landing my first speaking role on a show that ended up being called The Best Times.
Even though they didn’t think I was funny, I was a lucky one who had an agent and would go on auditions. It was a good time to be a young actor. There was lots of work.
Before you were born, the networks would do things called TV Movies. They would get the stars from their hit shows to do some sort of comedy or melodrama. Lifetime has continued that model with great success. In 1983, NBC did a T.V. Movie called Highschool U.S.A.
It was, ostensibly, a comedy that featured the young stars who were on the hit T.V. shows at the time: Michael J. Fox, Nancy McKeon, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato. Their parents and principals were played by T.V. stars of “yesteryear.” Bob Denver, Tony Dow, Dawn Wells, Jerry Mathers, David & Rick Nelson, Barbara Billingsley, Ken Osmond, Dick York, Burt Ward, etc. Genius, right? There were two characters, Archie & Chuckie who were played by actors who weren’t stars of NBC shows. Archie and Chuckie were the current staple of teen comedies – duo. One was “fat” and the other was “weird.” Hilarity ensues. Archie was played by Crispin Glover. Chuckie was played by Michael Zorek.
I knew Michael through Kathleen and her buddy Kari Lizer (she runs most of showbiz now) as they had done a movie that, were it released now, the theaters would be burnt to the ground and everyone responsible would be publicly beheaded. I knew of Crispin and had met him a couple times as he and Nic Cage would pop into The Loft from time to time. Crispin had done a scene from a German Expressionist playwright in class that, as you can imagine, baffled everyone – including Peggy. He and Nic Cage also had a song they would sing: “Bill’s got… (clap clap) Peggy’s got… (clap clap) eyes: sunk!” Nic also had a friend, Johnny, who played guitar and wanted to be an actor, who would pop in from time to time who ended up doing fairly well. I’d seen and admired Crispin in a movie, “My Tutor”, that, again, would end in riots now. Crispin was obviously doing his own thing and between the German Expressionism and his performance in “My Tutor” I realized that he was not only in his own league, but was creating his own amazing league.
Because Highschool U.S.A. had every hot young T.V. star in it and the old timers, it was a huge hit. Duh. What a surprise, right? The geniuses at NBC thought “We’ve got a hit!!! Hey! Let’s make a TV Pilot! ” And, because it starred people who already had T.V. series’, they had to recast all of the young lead roles.
Don’t tell anyone, but the standouts of the piece were Archie & Chuckie. No one had seen a performance like Crispin’s. I mean it. Astonishing. Weird, funny, inventive. Crispin!
YET ANOTHER DAMNED TANGENT
Back before you were born there was a HUGE difference between Television & Movies. The goal was to stay away from T.V. and just do movies. T.V. was the realm of hacks and losers and no one who was successful on T.V. ever, ever, ever, ever ended up doing good movies. Yup. It’s changed. T.V. is amazing and most movies suck. Trust me, it used to be different. For example, when I was at William Morris, I had a T.V. agent and a Feature Film agent.
MY NUTTY THEORY
Televisions used to be much smaller. Maybe the screen was 20” – maybe. “Happy Days” came on and Fonzie would be a guest in your home once a week. AND: he was tiny. Get it? Henry Winkler was this little toy who you’d watch in your underwear and he made you laugh. On the other hand, you put on clothes, left the house and paid money to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other strangers to watch a gigantic, fifty foot tall Robert DeNiro. The lizard brain kept those two things separate. Once your buddy, Henry Winkler is Fonzie, Henry Winkler is Fonzie. And, thanks to re-runs, he’s Fonzie forever. Cute, cuddly little Fonzie. Awww. No movies for you. Television. The end.
I think Crispin understood this and had no interest in being on television. Again, there was a feeding frenzy on young actors for movies at the time. The downside is that most of the movies that featured young people that were being made were stupid.
But… I digress….
THE TALK WITH MY DAD
I’d been in L.A. almost four years now. Each and every one of my roommates had film careers. Ally Sheedy had done War Games & Bad Boys. Tony and Eric had done Fast Times. They were all making a living as actors. I was still struggling – parking cars. I got a call from my dad in March of ’84. “I will pay for college if you want to go this fall.” I knew that something was going to break soon. I could feel it. I don’t think I was delusional about that. I may have been delusional about being able to sustain a career throughout my life, but I knew that it was only a matter of time. Before I moved to L.A. my manager (insert controversy here) told me “Tenacity is the key.” I told my dad that if nothing happened by the end of the year, I’d take him up on his offer. Who can blame him?
ARCHIE IS AVAILABLE
At this point, my ultimately controversial manager had split and partnered with Helen Sugland, who also represented Eric and some other folks I won’t bore you with. I had left Sudden Birth & Abortion and had signed with an amazing woman named Vivian Levy who was starting a “young people’s department” at a commercial agency. I will maintain that it does not matter what agency you are with. You only need an agent who wakes up asking themselves what they can do for you that day. That was Vivian. She had my headshot framed next to her desk. No other clients. (Cut to: Vivian Levy changing the headshots next to her desk as the secretary announces a client visit.) Vivian spearheaded a move to change “my look.” Paying for a haircut at a fancy salon. Buying me clothes that didn’t suck. Getting my eyebrows under control… Vivian ruled. She got me an audition for the pilot of High School U.S.A. The role of Archie. “Crispin Glover says he doesn’t want to do TV. This is yours, Dino.”
Because I had friends in it, I had seen Crispin’s performance in High School USA. It was insanity. Nutso. “Really, Dean? A weird Crispin Glover performance?” But, again, it was awesome. So. I knew sorta what they were looking for. There was no way I could do what he did. A: It wasn’t me. 2. I couldn’t have pulled it off, anyhow. So I figured out my own weird Archie and went in to read.
It happened really fast. Within a day, I had a callback and they paired me with some other actors who were playing Chuckie. (For whatever reason, they weren’t going to use Michael Zorek.) Shooting was starting fast, so we ended up going to 20th Century Fox on a Saturday (my memory is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it was a Saturday.) and I read with a couple guys. I looked around and there weren’t any other guys reading Archie. They had me stay there with another actor, Googy Gress.
Before your final audition, “Going To Network”, for television, they make your deal. The idea is that if they really like you and you book the gig, you don’t then say “Okay, I want six billion dollars and a yacht.” So, they spell the deal out before you read. Back then, the contracts were for seven years. And, back then T.V. money was relatively shitty. The actors had not figured out that people were tuning in to see them. At the peak of Happy Days, Henry Winkler was the highest paid actor on TV. I *think* he was making fifty grand an episode. And that was after some heavy maneuvering. A lead actor on a NETWORK 1hr drama now, is making at least twice that. At least.
I was going to make $7,500 for the pilot and $4500 and episode if it went to series. Feel free to deduct 40% from Uncle Sam (you are immediately put in the tax bracket that says “cool, you’re making $7500 a week like a doctor!” after parking cars for a year, 10% from my agent, and 15% from the manager. Not the big bucks people are getting on network t.v. now. (Netflix and other streaming channels are a different story… Not one for me to tell.) The other nutty thing about those “standard” T.V. contracts was signing up for the next seven years. You commit to seven years. They increase your pay by 10% every year. However, as my manager once said to me “contracts were made to be broken.” Plus it’s a free country. You can break a contract. It’s a hassle and can cost you not only money, but industry goodwill. Still… Even though I hadn’t done anything of note, it was weird signing that network deals and thinking about playing Archie for the next seven years. (Fun fact: at this point in my life, knowing I had a paycheck for the next seven years would be the greatest thing in the world. Gimme a call.)
I go in with Googy. We nail it as much as one can nail High School USA. They tell us to wait. After a couple of minutes, Dori Weiss, the exec producer comes out and lets us know they’ll call the reps to negotiate the thing and the thing and “great job, see you Monday….” We are going to network.
We “Go to network” which is when the pressure is on. The actors are trying to be nice to each other, knowing that this job could be the difference between waiting tables (or parking cars) and owning a bunch of Los Angeles real estate. You go in and all of the network executives are there to judge you. Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC at least five other people in suits, the director, producers and, head of casting: Joel Thurm… Martin Short’s “Nathan Thurm” character was based on Joel Thurm.
It’s a high stress situation.
Long story short, Googy and I book the gig.
I call my dad and let him know he can rest easy because from here on out, the world is my oyster. Because my dad is my dad, he says “Well, let’s hope the checks clear.” It’s NBC. Christ. How about a “Congratulations, son?” My mom is thrilled. Friends are happy. The reps are happy. Everyone’s happy.
It’s fun. We’re having fun. Fun times. All is well. Googy and I have one scene to do. It goes okay. I remember that he hugged me and accidentally kneed me in the balls. Regardless. Good times. I’m working with people who would become friends and acquaintances until this day: Tegan West, Johnathan Gries, Anne Marie Johnson…
Weird… there are a lot of people from NBC on the set. The scene that Googy and I were supposed to do has been moved to another day. Weird. After takes, there are lots of hushed discussions between the director, Jack Bender (fun fact: highschool buddies with my wife’s dad!) and producers Dori Weiss and Len Hill. Wow. Lots of network people.
At one point, Googy jokes to Dori. “Please don’t fire us!!!” Dori gets pale. Then she laughs. That was a little weird.
Man, there were a lot of network people there.
Because we are all, at this point, “hot young actors,” lunch is talk of how we want to do feature films and that T.V. sucks.
I give Googy a ride to the set, which is, if I recall correctly, in Pasadena. I’m excited because today we get to do scenes with our parents. Bob Denver, Ken Oswald are going to be there. I’m so excited. Truly.
We get to the set. I have my little backpack with my books and whatnot and I walk up to the veal feeding cubicles that served as dressing rooms. The P.A. is writing something on my dressing room door where it’s supposed to say “Dean Cameron.” She immediately covers up whatever she’s writing. “Uh… Dori wants to see you guys.” I say “Okay, I’m going to get some breakfast.” I move to put my backpack in the dressing room. The P.A. sorta tries to block my way. “Um… maybe you should go see her right now.” Googy and I are super confused and shrug. I toss my backpack into my dressing room. The P.A. looks like I’ve tossed a bag of shit into the dressing room. Googy and I go to find Dori. We do. She’s by the breakfast truck with a coffee and burrito.
Dori: “Hi, guys. Listen…. bad news. We’ve been watching dailies and, boy, we LOVE what you guys are doing, but THE NETWORK, really, really, really wanted what Crispin was doing, so…. um… Wow… We’re going to have to let you go.”
I realize that we are fucking being fucking FIRED!!!!! BUT….. NOOOOOOO!!!!! This is my first big gig. This is the reason I’ve been eating shit for the past 3 years. The shitty jobs. The humiliation from the people at my shitty jobs who say “you’ll never make it as an actor, you idiot.” The fading confidence of my parents. It’s all ending right here. We are fucking getting fucking fired. I am speechless.
But, because Googy Gress is the coolest person on the planet, his immediate reply is: “We still get paid, right?” Dori nods. I’m holding back tears. This is the most awful thing that’s ever happened. I’ve never been fired from anything. It seems impossible that anyone would want to fire me because I AM SUPER FUCKING AWESOME BUT YOU ARE FIRING ME AND EVERYONE IN SHOWBIZ KNOWS THAT I SUCK NOW!!!!!
Googy says “Let’s go before traffic gets too bad.” Man, he’s fucking awesome.
I head back to my veal feeding cubicle to get my bag where it is now clear that the P.A. was writing CRISPIN GLOVER on the door.
I’m driving Googy home. The news is telling us that Marvin Gaye had been murdered by his father. What the fuck is happening? Googy says “Don’t worry about it. That show sucks and everyone gets fired from something. We’ll be fine.” All I can think of is what the fuck am I going to say to my fucking dad? “Hi, dad. Turns out that you were right. I suck as an actor and should be an English major or something.” I don’t know.
Here’s the deeply awful thing that NBC and the producers did or didn’t do: They didn’t tell my reps. I was the one who had to call them and let them know. If you have good agents and managers, they will get more pissed than you can ever know by the slightest indiscretion. If it’s major: “STAY WHERE YOU ARE! I’M CALLING THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS RIGHT NOW! WHY DIDN’T THOSE PUSSIES CALL ME!?!?” screams my manager who ended up being completely and utterly disappointed in me 10 years later. Turns out it was good practice as another client of hers ended up getting fired from one of the biggest movies ever made. Glad I was able to give her a little insight into the process.
I was so freaked out about telling my dad that I made her tell him and assure him that it wasn’t because I sucked but it was because some people at NBC were being evil shitheads. (turns out they were… keep reading) My dad kinda/sorta understood but I could still sense, even through the phone, that he was giving me that look “We both know the truth, son.”
Later that day I get a message on my answering machine. “It’s Jim from Executive Parking. You didn’t show up to your shifts. Come turn in your uniform. What’s your problem, dude?”
The check from High School U.S.A. ended up being for $1200.
A couple years later, I became fairly good friends with Crispin. It turns out that Googy and I were pawns in some horrible power struggle to get Crispin Glover on the show. Crispin kept asking for more and more money. The producers kept saying “hell no.” Finally, someone at the network (“That’s what you say. I didn’t say it.”) told Dori & Len “if you don’t get Crispin, there isn’t a chance in hell that your show is going to get picked up.” But… Crispin wouldn’t sign on as a regular on the show. There was, wisely, no way he was going to commit to seven years on “High School USA” and he made them hire him as a guest star. And they paid him $35,000 for the week. $35,000. Crispin Glover for the win!!!
The performance was deep insanity. Crispin said it was his “Fuck you to T.V.” and if you see the pilot it is obvious. The fun, light and weird Archie is now dark and strange. The German Expressionist performance at The Loft made his High School U.S.A. performance look like a guest star on a Nickelodeon show.
Needless to say, High School U.S.A. did not get picked up.
But: I received a very nice letter from Warren Littlefield (insert scandal here) that I’ve kept framed for the last 100 years.
Enjoy the pilot: