THE 4th WALL
It took me 48 hours to completely go thru one large cardboard box in my garage. Stuff from the 70’s; war photos, theater programs, critical reviews, scripts, love letters…and a packet of long forgotten fan letters, largely devoted to characters I’d played on How To Survive A Marriage and Search For Tomorrow. I realized I’d never read many of them and I considered how very much fandom and celebrity have changed, over the past 40 years.
Most just wanted to say hi and ask for a signed photo. I sent out a lot of photos in those days, long before networks or publicists handled such issues. Some requests were on 3 by 5 postcards, some handwritten, on lined notebook paper or elegant personal stationary. There were then fewer networks and fewer shows; fan attention was concentrated on a much smaller pool of actors. Some fans shared their own artistic aspirations and asked for my advice. Perhaps today, those truly talented fans might find their way to a Star Search or reality show or America’s Got Talent. But back then, such fame was just a pipe dream…
And the fans of soap operas cherished their “stories”; they were passionate and loyal. Sheldon sent me typed, double spaced, comparatively literate expressions of his admiration for my work. I suspect ol Sheldon had a few other hidden agenda’s tho… Nothing hidden about the more outgoing requests for details about my own personal life…and for sure, nothing hidden in the Polaroids of themselves, of EVERY orifice many female fans sent me! I have no idea how they composed some of those shots; all taken decades before the invention of “the selfie stick”.
Not every fan had a firm grasp on reality. Some clearly struggled to differentiate fiction from real life. Some would send me detailed descriptions of characters intending to “do me wrong”, they wanted to warn me of the dangers “Bobby Stuart” (my character on SFT) was facing! I’m sure they meant well, wanted to help…but clearly not all were wrapped real tight. I mean, I’d read those scripts, I knew what our writers were up to but they just wanted to give me a heads up.
A lot of young women in college chose to write to me, many of them, women of color. Their letters were sincere and coy and intended to woo. At that time, there were comparatively few actors of color on network tv on a regular basis. They offered their astrological signs and their aspirations and their devotion to my character on SFT on NBC. I was the first actor of color ever to be offered a contract on that show, in 1978…and it had been on the air since 1951! P&G, who sponsored the program, along with others (hey, that’s why they were called “soaps” –the sponsors manufactured laundry detergents) insisted that I sign for two years. I agreed to sign for six months, asking that they create a story line for my character. I then had commercial go-to-hell money and I preferred theater, in any case. Six months came and went. SFT refused to create a story line for my character, fearing they’d lose some of their white audience base…even tho their ratings had steadily risen since my characters introduction.
And so I just walked away. P&G was beside itself (MF’ers got downright indignant!) but I was done. Shortly afterwards, over at ABC, their writers backed the storyline of Angie and Jessie on All My Children…and they then DOMINATED soap opera ratings for years! My people LOVE their stories! I only appreciated the impact of “Bobby” during my performances on stage in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus for the Public Theater. For six months I’d done both; shooting the soap in the morning, classes with Stella Adler in the afternoon and working on stage in the evening. And I appeared on stage as a minor character! (I was understudying Cassius and Tullus Aufidius) and flashbulbs would be going off in the house and whispers of “That’s Bobby! That’s BOBBY!” could be heard. THAT clarified for me the impact of television. I am a few feet away from them, performing in a Shakespearean drama…and a character they’d seen on their 21” TV screen back home was far more important to them.
Now for all those years and fan letters, I’d allowed an interaction with a young black woman from the south. Nothing inappropriate mind you, but she seemed authentic and sane and undemanding. Once she had my mailing address, she sent me cards on every conceivable Hallmark occasion; Christmas, Easter, Halloween, even fucking Flag Day! Seriously. Along with embroidered pillows and bears and… I finally stood up and put an end to that, telling her, “Please, no more gifts…but thanks.” Some years passed.
In 1986, in full PTSD thrall, I chanced to travel to Ft Bragg to film a few Army National Guard PSA’s. I awoke early that morning in my motel…and I had NO IDEA where I was or why. That confusion was memorable and surreal. I turned on my tv, to learn that Len Bias had just died of a cocaine overdose. I was a Terp…so was this absurdly physically gifted athlete…and suddenly, he was just gone. I had time before my pickup for the shoot and on a whim, remembering that I was near the home of this woman who’d written to me for so many years, I decided to call her and just say hello. Looked her up in the phone book, dialed the number and the phone was answered…by her parents. I explained who I was, that she’d often written to me and I just wanted to say hello to her while I was in town. They went to speak to her. They returned to tell me that she was unwilling to speak to me…and that my call was upsetting. I apologized, hung up, went on to film my work and flew home to NYC.
Only later did I come to appreciate the magnitude of my error. I had, in a sense “broken the fourth wall”. This young woman had created, over years, a fictional relationship. Not with me, but with a character I’d portrayed on a soap opera. And by calling, as myself, I had shattered all of her fantasies about Bobby…and she never contacted me again.