ARTISTS

The passing of John Hurt was a profound loss. In the mid-70’s, there was a soap called HOW TO SURVIVE A MARRIAGE that included several important careers, among them Armand Assante and F. Murray Abraham…and an intense young actor named Brad Davis. His character had MS and I was his physiotherapist.

I’ve done a number of soaps over the years and encountered my share of “brooding young men” who pouted about the sound stages, brows furrowed, bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders. They were all handsome and darkhaired and if filmed today, all would be sporting a three day beard. 😉 I’d trained with Sandy Meisner and Stella Adler; I could spot a poseur from some distance…and I encountered more than a few.

But Brad was different. He had an authentic inner life and I enjoyed my work with him. I was not surprised by the arc of his career, his success with MIDNIGHT EXPRESS…and was saddened by his untimely death.

PS And I suggest you all find and watch 10 Rillington Place.

SOAPS

Writing about Brad Davis and soaps, reading the comments about GET OUT posted by multi-generational white friends reminded me how little I have engaged my professional history from the 70’s.

Yes, I enjoyed some early success, appearing weekly on all three networks. I’d been a working actor for barely four years. There was no cable then. One of those shows was a CBS newsmagazine called Channel 2: The People. I hosted it, was nominated for an Emmy. This was like ‘75 or so…During this time, my face became “familiar” to much of the civilized world…and remains so, to this day.

But I had a memorable meeting one day in NY with a casting agent for a soap opera. He’d known me from a couple plays I’d done at the Public Theater. I read the sides with him and Stanley Soble stopped me, before we’d finished. He had a yellow legal pad, filled from top to bottom with names. He said, “See this list? I have all these people scheduled…and I don’t want to see any of them. I want you to do this role.”

Can any actor imagine a more positive outcome from a meeting? Guess what I then said? “Stanley, I came today as a courtesy, wanting to meet you and be familiar to you. But yesterday I committed to a theatrical company at The Public Theater, to do Julius Caesar and Coriolanus in repertory. I won’t be available to shoot your soap.” And Stanley said, “Well, suppose you let me worry about that.”

I had no idea what that meant. But he called Joe Papp. They knew each other, because Stanley had been Joe’s casting director before moving to CBS…which is why he knew my work. And they worked out a schedule; I was allowed to do both. For an unforgettable six months, I rose early each day to shoot at CBS, caught a character class with Stella Adler in between and performed two Shakespearean plays in repertory at night. It was a time of incredible growth and focus for me. Challenging to my relationship but she was on board…and it was a rich and rewarding time in my life. That summer I was invited to do Shakespeare In The Park, for the first…and only time. I was burned out after that winter’s schedule, I turned it down. I think Denzel did my roles that summer.

The soap role was the personal assistant to a Ted Turner-like mogul, a billionaire. The soap was Search For Tomorrow. It had been on the air since 1951. Now twenty six years later, I would become the first actor of color to sign a contract on their show. It was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. Most soaps were similarly sponsored, that’s why they called them “soaps”….

I don’t know anyone of color who didn’t then have an aunt or grandmother or church friend that was dedicated to “her stories.” That’s what black people called soaps. But the day was still young in TV land…and the daytime corporate establishment was hesitant about easing black actors and black lives into their white tableau. They wanted me to sign for two years. I agreed to sign for six months. I’d already shot 15 or 20 episodes by now, had all the go to hell money I’d ever need (from commercials) so I had a little leverage. I asked them to create a life for my character, Bobby Stuart. Stand up guy, professional, VERY well dressed, dedicated to his jefe, Travis Turner Sentell. (Rod Arrants, a great guy, very tall and handsome, engaged to an equally stunning heartbreaker, Sherry Mathis.  They were America’s daytime sweethearts.) But my characters life existed entirely to serve his needs. I wanted my own reality.

I’m gonna tell you a story to illustrate the creative realities at that time in American daytime TV, ‘76 or so. An episode involved a party Bobby and his lady were throwing. We’re set in Louisiana. I arrived on set that morning, noticed maybe 30 or so extras for the party…and realized that they were all white. Now I was clearly black…and the actress they’d cast as my lady, Marcia McBroom was also clearly black. (You’ll appreciate her in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.) And I mentioned to one of the producers, “You know…yes, Simone and I are both upscale…but don’t you think we would probably have at least two or three friends of color?”

It’s America in 1976, folks. Yet their response was surprising to me. They were, “Oh my…Oh! Of course you’re right. But it never even occurred to us…” That was the level of consciousness that existed. My six months came to an end. They asked that I re-sign for a year. I refused. P&G had them throw absurd money at me. “Just re-sign.” I didn’t want more money. It was never about the money. I wanted a commitment to a story line for a black character who had an independent life of his own. Their fear was that their longtime fan base, largely living in the south, would rebel and reject any such effort. So I walked. Principle. Economic security. And a commitment to what I believed could succeed, black story lines. I’m told there was later considerable upset, from on high. “What do you mean, you can’t sign him?”

So my life went on. And ABC aired Jessie and Angie on ALL MY CHILDREN. And they made daytime history! CBS, you silly wabbits. 😉

Postscript: Some years later, in the 80’s I was asked to do a few episodes on another long running soap, the one I called 1L2L. ONE LIFE TO LIVE. I forget my character…but the woman producing this show was the same woman who’d headed SEARCH. (You can do the scut work if you’re that obsessive…but I’m not gonna bust her.)

A character named Tucker was on this show, played by a young black actor…detective or agent, I dunno… I was walking behind the set and heard on the PA, “Tucker, report to the sound stage.” And I immediately wheeled and proceed to the set…and then stopped, realizing that this announcement was not meant for me.

I still remember then having this thought. She (Unidentified Producer) finally found a nigger named Tucker she could tell what to do.

ENOUGH

I’m working thru a phase of depression. I’m aware that much of my present reality, ours really, justifies some of my funk…but I haven’t yet committed to active dissention. I’m happy for those who’ve found purpose in their activism…that’s just not yet speaking to me.

And I experience further dissatisfaction and self-criticality, knowing that MY reality, compared to the majority of humanity justifies so little cause for my unhappiness. I am safe, I am sheltered, I am well fed…and am likely to remain so.

I watch LITTLE BIG LIES. It is handsome with an accomplished cast and set in a scenic locale. I wonder how it is received by the wider world. My takeaway (and I will continue to watch, make no mistake) is that affluent, attractive well educated, largely white Americans can find unhappiness as quickly as the rest of us.

So financial security is apparently no guarantee that lives can not get fucked up. Wonder how much comfort that is to viewers that tease themselves with this mantra? “Man if I had that kind of money, no way would I not be fulfilled!” Right? Is that not the subtext of most who watch such prime time soaps? And how many people do you know of or have read about, that enjoyed such affluence…and found ways to destroy it?

The most fulfilled people I’ve met in the world during my journeys; the villagers of Greece, the farmers of Vietnam, the forest workers of Germany were not people of affluence. Far from it. But somehow, their values, their work, their faith sustained them and affirmed them. Now that was an earlier time, when material success was not constantly in their faces, on tv screens and magazines.

I dunno. Is this, “How you gonna keep em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Parie?” I’ve gotta wonder. And wonder how the wealth of 2017 strikes the average American…who KNOW they will never possess millions or billions of dollars. Movie star? $20 million a film? Sports star? $20, 50, 100, 200 million dollar contracts? And you gotta lump in there, CEO’s and hedge fund managers and lobbyists and entrepreneurs and …

I mean, what does the average citizen DO with such knowledge? Does it inspire them? Does it discourage them? Does it deflate their perceptions of their lives, knowing such will NEVER be their reality? Modern affluence is to some extent, a result of capitalism. Build a better mousetrap. Ally yourself with world-class robber barons. Be born on third base. It would seem to require some serious faith in some rather longstanding tenets of charity and generosity and regard for our fellow man to sustain a devotion to Service to Others…rather than to ourselves. And even our religious leaders, those that would or should inspire us to charity, seem largely just hucksters that become rich from farming our need to find meaning in our existence.

I surely have no answers…nothing that gives me any certainty that my own choices are any more divinely guided than the choices of anyone else. I’ve found some solace in a personal decision made years ago. It’s nothing I can honorably share here; doing so could only be perceived as bragging or self-promotion…never been comfortable with that. But I will say that what I’ve been doing encourages me that such conduct is “above the line”. I would be impressed to learn that someone else does what I do. I think we ALL hope to Make A Difference during our lives. I hope each of you find that way that marks your passage, your existence here and now.