The Best Laid Plans

I had planned on writing a blog about the craft of acting, today, but, as the saying goes, the best laid plans…

The change in my subject matter began, as so much does these days, with a Twitter debate (I’m putting it kindly), regarding the 2016 election. I was attempting to have a rational conversation with an anonymous anti-Clinton, seemingly Sanders-‘Til-Death person. I figured, we agreed on a number of points. I was a Sanders supporter during the primaries. Even though I voted for Secretary Clinton in the election, I absolutely consider myself a Progressive. Surely we had enough in common to have a rational discussion.

Silly me.

I am still learning that, engaging with those to my left, can be every bit as filled with vial and vitriol as trying to do the same with someone on the far right. But I really wanted to try and understand this person who thinks having a narcissistic, racist, homophobic, criminal, with delusions of dictatorship in his eyes, occupying the Oval Office, was better than having an experienced, knowledgeable person, who has served in government most of her adult life, and might, however remote you believe the possibility, do some really good things for the country.

But, as we all know, Hillary Clinton is actually Satan incarnate. (Side note to Agolf Twitler & Co: If you want to know what an actual with hunt looks like, how’s this?):

25 solid years of investigation after investigation, and hundreds of millions of tax-payer dollars — all brought to you by your friendly neighborhood GOP. But wait! There’s more! All of this bullshit, is capped off by an 11-hour Benghazi “perjury trap” on live television. But, hell! At least they got her, right! Oh wait — how many indictments did all that congressional time, and OUR money net them? Oh, right — not a single motherfucking one! But, oh, those emails…

Naturally, the conversation got ’round to a point I keep making, over and over — Hillary Clinton did not lose the election. She won the popular vote, by a plurality of almost three million people. Not only is that the most votes ever won by a “losing” candidate, no winning President, other than Barack Obama has won that much of the popular vote.

But then there’s that silly Electoral College, which, even without voter suppression or Russian interference, gives smaller and less populous states (who contribute far less than, oh, say, California or New York do, to the Federal budget) more say in the Electoral College than do the larger and more populous states. That makes sense.

So that’s where we were, when my debate opponent asked the following snarky question:

“So who’s fault was it? Jill’s? Bernie’s? Russia’s? Electoral College? Who we blaming this week? Space Force?”

I really wanted to let the conversation die, right there. I knew I should. After all, I had already had it hammered home, there was no difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party. There was no way I was going to get through to a Democrat who had a) voted for Twitler; b) stayed home & didn’t vote at all; or c) voted for Jill Stein.

Naturally, I responded. What I said was the following:

“I’ll say the same to you as I say to Democrats who refuse to admit Hillary Clinton & the DNC fucked up, too. GET OVER IT! We have a fucking Nazi in the White House, & fascism taking over this country. So you can either get over your righteous anger for the moment, or you can help the Nazi.”

This is what I, a registered Democrat since 1973 — a Proud Progressive — believes. No one in our party has the right to self-righteousness. Yes, it is my firm belief that any Democrat who voted for Jill Stein, or stayed at home and didn’t bother to vote, in protest, or, worst of all, actually voted for the orange cretin, beyond being semi-certifiable, is, at least in part, responsible for the mess we’re in.

However, don’t get too cocky, Clintonians. Secretary (who should be President) Clinton, and the DNC are also culpable. They were unquestionably arrogant and dismissive toward Progressives who already felt abandoned by the party; who believe the party and most of its candidates are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Wall Street. This smug attitude (and the Bernie-bro’s bullshit, not to mention — but I will — the, if you don’t vote for Hillary, you’re a misogynist, crap) helped give lefter-leaning Progressives, all the excuse they needed.

And I’m sorry, but the choice of Tim Kaine as running-mate, was a slap in the face to every Progressive in the party. The Bernie-wing, as it was being called, were promised inclusion, and then quickly kicked to the curb. The DNC was so sure the election was a shoe-in, they felt secure in flipping the bird to Progressives.

How’d that work out?

There are no angels, or paragons of virtue in this scenario. We all fucked up. Accept it, own it, and get the fuck over it! At least, for now.

Hopefully, we have reached the point where most of us realize, every Democratic vote, and voter, counts. Like it or not, we are in a fight for our lives — in my opinion, quite literally. The very soul of this country and its people are at stake. This country is currently controlled by an obsessively tweeting psychopath, who has surrounded himself with sycophants and people so greedy, they’re stealing every penny they can, before the walls of D.C. come tumbling down.

The Republican party, which still has the unmitigated gall to call itself the party of Lincoln, is filled with racists, craven cowards, and jack-booted thugs who think the Constitution, and the oath they took to defend it, are a joke. They are terrified of Twitler, and his army of lemmings and racists, a situation of their own creation. There will be no help there.

Yes, to my friends on the left, the DNC has treated Progressives like shit. The leadership doesn’t really want to see the future of the party, because they know they’re not it. I don’t know if Hillary Clinton would have been able to change things for the better, or simply maintained the status quo. Right now, though, that status quo is looking pretty damn good.

As pissed off as you may have been, and as much as you would like to deny it (I would love to be able to), the Russians did interfere with the 2016 election (and are now attempting to do so with the mid-terms), handing it to their stooge. There are many who still see this claim as part of a grand conspiracy against Progressive change. To those of you who actually believe that bullshit, I urge you to open your minds, and take a real look. If there is a conspiracy, it is between the Russians and the Republicans, who just want to maintain their gravy train, and don’t care where the gravy’s coming from.

In the coming mid-terms, if Progressives who want real change, stay home, or make protest votes in petulant righteousness, believe me — you’ll get change. The exact same change Germany got in 1933. Don’t fool yourself into believing it can’t happen here — it already is. So put aside your anger, your disenchantment, and your disgust. We can fight that out, later. I’ll be there with you on that fight. But right now, we don’t have that luxury. Everyone has to GET THE FUCK OVER 2016, get the fuck over self-righteousness, or the fact there is no such thing as the perfect candidate!

Right now, the real fight is for our lives.

Addendum: Shortly after writing this, I saw another pissed off Progressive venting his/their (it was a band) anger at me, because I was sucked in and voted for Hillary. I am frightened by the unbelievable refusal to comprehend what is happening to this country, by people who, on most counts, I agree with. They simply cannot, and will not see the threat. To them, the only threat is the DNC, and the arrogance (their word) Hillary Clinton showed during the campaign. They keep saying and/or implying the DNC is a bigger threat than that greedy, narcissistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic asshole in the Oval Office. They are wrong. I only pray they don’t end up being tragically wrong.

Advertisements

And Now For Something Completely Different — Comedy! Part Two

As with many of my generation (especially boys), my first major comedy influence was The Three Stooges. Yeah, yeah — I can already hear the groans! There’s an old saw which says, boys (especially from my generation) love The Three Stooges. On the other hand, girls hate them. Obviously, there are exceptions, but in my experience, more often than not, the rule holds true .

Thanks to my mother, who kept files of everything having to do with her four sons throughout our childhoods, I have a paper written in 1962 (1st grade/2nd grade — who remembers). It was (and I’m being kind here) a picture I drew of a man (more of a stick figure) standing between what I assume are two large klieg lights (and for some strange reason I can’t remember, what looks to be a big plant next to him). At the top of the page I wrote the words, “I want to be an actor. When I see the Three Stooges, I get an iden (yes, my six-year-old self misspelled the word, idea) I want to be an actor.

A few years later, I was introduced to four complete and utter maniacs. Their names — Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo — The Marx Bros. I couldn’t get enough of them (still can’t) — The Cocoanuts, A Night At the Opera, Duck Soup, and then, the miraculous re-release of Animal Crackers, unseen for years. What The Stooges started, The Marx Bros. completed. I would be a comic actor, fate sealed!

Comedically, I’ve had numerous influences through the years. I’ve probably appeared in, or directed more Neil Simon plays than I can count. It is my firm belief, Simon is a genius, especially when it comes to dialogue. I find it sad so many of Simon’s stage plays didn’t transfer all that well to the screen (with notable exceptions, The Odd Couple being a major example). And the team of Richard Dreyfus and Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, is as good as romantic comedy gets.

On stage, it was Simon and Murray Schisgal, followed later by writers like Paul Rudnick. And Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which was rerun throughout the 1970s, was sheer brilliance. Then came the films of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen (both graduates of the Sid Caesar school of comedy, as was Simon), and so very many others. These people and their work, taught me more about the crafts of acting, writing and directing than any college or professional program ever could.

I was also fortunate enough to grow up in the age of Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, Peter Cooke & Dudley Moore, SCTV, the original National Lampoon gang, and, a little later, the original cast of Saturday Night Live.

How all of this brings me to two comedic gems I feel have been woefully overlooked, I’m not sure. But both are films that have stayed with me through the years, and which I re-watch when I’m feeling the need for inspiration. The first of these films is, No Way To Treat A Lady, written by John Gay (from a story by the immortal William Goldman, whose resume is too long to recount, so I’ll just mention two — Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride). The film was directed by Jack Smight.

The second film, Where’s Poppa, with a screenplay by Robert Klane (based on his novel), was directed by the comic genius, Carl Reiner, yet another Show of Shows veteran, as well as creator and cast member of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Both films share one major thing in common — their leading man. George Segal, currently known to television audiences as “Pops” Solomon, the grandfather on ABC’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, was, in the early and mid 1960s, known as a “serious” actor. His turns in Ship of Fools, King Rat, and Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (opposite Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), for which he received an Oscar nomination, cemented that reputation. But it was his work in No Way To Treat A Lady, and Where’s Poppa? which quickly led to other screen comedies, including The Owl & The Pussycat (opposite Barbra Streisand), The Hot Rock and Blume In Love, all of which helped cement his reputation as one of the top comedic leading men of the 1970s.

Another thing both films have in common is, there’s a darkness within the stories, which, somehow, makes the humor even funnier. In No Way To Treat A Lady, Segal plays Morris Brummel, a NYC detective on the hunt for a serial killer, played to perfection by Rod Steiger. Steiger’s character, Christopher Gill, who comes from a theatrical family, is a master of disguise and accents, which makes tracking him down incredibly difficult. Gill takes an interest in the detective hunting him, and begins calling Morris, taunting him. As I said, the story is dark. The movie is funny.

A tremendous part of the humor comes from the wonderful Eileen Heckart, as Mrs. Brummel, Morris’s mother (who he still lives with). In Heckart’s capable hands, what could easily have become a one-dimensional caricature of the standard Jewish mother, becomes a fully realized multi-dimensional human being. The gorgeous and talented Lee Remick, who becomes Segal’s romantic interest, is the one-person who has seen Gill, making her a witness, as well as a potential victim.

There’s a lot going on in this film. In lesser hands, it could easily have become a mess. But the combination of incredible acting, a superb, funny and, at times, thrilling screenplay, and Smight providing a light directorial touch, firmly places this movie on my list of Must Sees.

I have a sneaking suspicion, No Way To Treat A Lady may have led Segal to Where’s Poppa? Once again, we have Segal as NY attorney, Gordon Hocheiser , who still lives with his seemingly senile mother (the amazing, Ruth Gordon). What keeps Hocheiser home, is the deathbed promise he and his brother, Sidney (the hysterically on point, Ron Liebman) made their father, to never put Momma in a home.

When Gordon falls in love with the ethereal, almost angelic, and absolutely shiksa nurse, Louise (Trish Van Devere, perfectly cast), hired to care for Momma, Hocheiser determines the last thing he’s going to do is allow Momma to screw this one up — no matter what he has to do to prevent it.

That’s the set-up. As in No Way To Treat A Lady, we’re dealing with a dutiful Jewish son, with an overbearing mother, who falls in love with a beautiful shiksa (for the uninitiated, a shiksa is a non-Jewish woman). That’s where the films diverge. Where’s Poppa is filled with so very much more — Sidney’s nighttime runs through Central Park, an unbelievably funny courtroom scene with a pre-All In the Family Rob Reiner doing battle with the ultimate war-hawk, army Colonel, played by the great Barnard Hughes, just to mention two.

From the very first moment, Reiner the elder, directs this fast-paced film to perfection. There are moments so hysterically funny, situations so easily relatable (especially if you’re from NYC, and Jewish), you have to be careful not to laugh so hard you miss out on some of the fun.

While both films are very much of their time (late 60s to 1970), the humor stands up. Funny is funny.

In any event, these two comedies are on my list of movies you have to see — unless, of course, you have no sense of humor and don’t like comedy. I’d also like to give honorable mentions to two other films from that same time period. Harold and Maude, a story about a very rich young man with social anxieties (Bud Cort), who falls in love with a 70-something, free-spirited woman (once again, Ruth Gordon) who teaches him to enjoy life. All I can say is, it’s a wonderful, funny and even poignant film.

The other honorable mention goes to The Loved One, based on a novel by British satirist Evelyn Waugh. This comedy deals with the very profitable funeral industry in Los Angeles, and stars a young Robert Morse (fresh off the smash Broadway musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying), the always brilliant comedy of Jonathan Winters, the stunningly beautiful, Anjanette Comer, and, once again, the incredible Rod Steiger. There’s also an all-star guest cast that’s a veritable who’s who of 60s comedy.

All four of these films remain fresh and funny. They still make me laugh. And they continue to teach me about my craft.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Comedy! Part One

When I began writing today’s blog, I had no intention of making it a two-parter. But as I went on, I realized it was getting longer and longer. And while the through-line of the entire piece was comedy, there seemed to be a dividing line between my musings on the art of acting, writing and directing comedy, vs. my original intention, discussing two films I consider underrated comedy classics. In any event, maybe it’s because I’m just so in love with the topic, I had a lot to say; or possibly I just love having the ability to use as many words as I like, without having to edit my thoughts to fit in Twitter’s allotment of words per tweet. Either way, this is part one of two.

As an actor-writer-director (and sometime, producer, although that’s far from being my strongest area of expertise, as anyone who’s worked with me will attest), I have spent the past (G_d help us) 43 years, performing and directing everything from the heaviest of dramatic works, to musical theater (where I got my professional start), to works of complete & utter slapstick farce. And while I enjoy doing dramatic works (the only acting award I’ve ever won was for playing Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s, Angels In America: Millennium Approaches — not exactly lightweight material), it is comedy that lights my life.

While you would never guess it from the films, plays and performances nominated for Academy and Tony Awards, both of which, year after year, demonstrate a clear preference for drama over comedy, and dramatic performance over comedic, a not so little secret pretty much everyone in the business knows is, comedy is a shitload harder than drama.

There is a famous theatrical “deathbed quote,” attributed to everyone from the great British stage actor, Sir Edmund Kean, to the British film actor, Edmund Gwenn (best known for his role as Kris Kringle in the movie, Miracle On 34th Street), and even Groucho Marx, which bares restating. And while the identity of who actually said it remains a deep, dark theatrical mystery, the line was never uttered more truthfully, or with greater comedic affect than by Peter O’Toole in the film, My Favorite Year.

As movie star, Alan Swann (loosely based on Errol Flynn), O’Toole explains to young comedy writer, Benjy Stone (loosely based on a young Mel Brooks, and beautifully played by Mark-Linn Baker), “Comedy is such a mystery to me. I feel the way Edmund Kean did. On his death-bed, Kean was asked how he felt. He answered, Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

It may lose a little something without O’Toole’s beautifully-timed delivery, but as far as I’m concerned, that line states an under-appreciated truth. It is much more difficult to write, act, and/or direct a successful comedy — one that has audiences rolling in the aisles — then the somewhat cheaper effect, of bringing them to tears. For me, working on dramas is something I do, to remind others of my versatility (and/or because I need the work).

Another sad truism of the entertainment industry, especially as practiced in the United States, is, people love to pigeon-hole actors, writers and directors. Have a successful comedy, that’s how people in the industry see you from then on. Likewise, act, write or direct a successful drama, and that becomes your niche.

As an example, think about how difficult it was (and still is), for actors and directors to try their hand at something different, without pissing off their audience. The two easiest examples that come to mind are Bill Murray and Woody Allen. Both attained their success as comics, or comic actors (and, additionally in Allen’s case, as writer/director).

In Murray’s case, his work on Saturday Night Live, and in films like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters, established him as a major comedy star. But when he tried his hand at something different, The Razor’s Edge, a serious project which he lobbied hard to get made, Murray was slammed! While not a great film, The Razor’s Edge was certainly a decent enough one. And Murray’s performance was pretty damn good. But his fans, the box office, and Hollywood (as the box office goes, so goeth Hollywood) didn’t want to see a serious Bill Murray. And it took years before he was finally accepted as a terrific actor — period.

Woody Allen began his career as a comedy writer on The Sid Caesar Show (a later version of Your Show of Shows), one of televisions all-time classic comedies, and the precursor of shows like SNL. Allen then moved into stand-up comedy, and from there into screen comedies he wrote or co-wrote, directed and starred in. The resulting films, What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, Take The Money and Run, Bananas, Play It Again, Sam (which started as a Broadway comedy), Sleeper and Annie Hall, cemented Allen’s reputation as a comic genius. And while a number of Allen’s subsequent dramadeys have met with great success, people do not respond anywhere near as well to his serious works. Those who remember, long for the days when Woody Allen was just funny.

As for me, given the choice, 99 out of 100 times, I’d rather act in, or direct a comedy. As a writer, I’m not even sure I would know how to begin writing a “serious” work. My writing mind rebels at the thought. Comedy is what I know and love. It’s the way my mind works. As an actor and director, I’ve found no greater challenge, and no greater satisfaction than when my work brings howls of laughter to an audience. Not to get too hyperbolic about it, but laughter feeds my soul.

Okay — so what’s the point of all this (I hear you say — if you’re still here)? The point is, I want to discuss and highlight some of the great comedies that have inspired and influenced me as an artist. Some, like Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, are obvious choices. While these three Brooks films are totally different in tone, tenor and subject matter, as well as the growth of Brooks’ sophistication as a director, they share one thing — they’re all hysterically funny.

They’re also incredibly well known comedies. In Part II of this post, I want to discuss several lesser-known screen comedies which, as far as I’m concerned, are comic masterpieces. They’re films I first saw in my teens, and, due to the combination and quality of screenplays, acting and directing, had very direct and major influences on me, comedically.

“The Family” Doesn’t Just Stand For The Mob, Anymore!

For anyone who doesn’t get it, we are living in terrifying times. As a youngster, I lived (as did we all) through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the ever popular ducking under our school desks practice, to protect us from a nuclear bomb blast. That was the 1960s version of today’s kids training to hide from maniacs invading their schools with guns (a far more terrifying reality than our nuclear bomb practice, but with about the same level of protection).

Today’s blog was supposed to have been about great, and all too frequently overlooked, movie comedies that have helped inform my thinking as actor, writer & director. Unfortunately, this morning’s edition of the Sirius progressive radio show, Make It Plain, hosted by Mark Thompson, featured an interview with Jeff Sharlet, a journalist, and Associate Professor of English at Dartmouth University, the author of a terrifying book entitled, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I was so incredibly terrified by Professor Sharlet’s research and exploration of this, for lack of better words, cult, any thought of comedy was immediately wiped from my head.

I’d heard of The Family, before. As I understood it, they were a group of right-leaning congressman, sharing a house in Washington, D.C. when not in their home districts or states. They were, supposedly, also the group behind the “National Prayer Breakfast,” a yearly gathering of powerful politicians and businessmen, more often than not, including the President. According to what I’d read, this yearly breakfast was an ecumenical, and fairly benign event. Boy was I in for a rude awakening.

According to Sharlet, the political power of The Family, or The Fellowship, as it’s known to insiders, was based on being a secretive, fundamentalist Christian group, wielding the power of its membership as a means to control governments, and the people they governed. Before his 2017 death, the group was led by a man named Douglas Coe, known to many as “the stealth Billy Graham.” His name was recognizable only to members of The Family. But within, he was as close to G_d, as you could get.

Sharlet says the organization fetishizes power by equating Jesus to 20th and 21st century leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Osama Bin Laden (how you wield the power is less important than actually having power). As I understand Sharlet’s thesis, The Family believes there is, and should be, a small group of leaders who change the world via the strength of the covenants they’ve forged with their “brothers.” (Note: to my knowledge, not many, if any, “sisters.”)

As Coe designed it, the cult — and make no mistake, they are a cult — believed in a blind devotion to Jesus Christ, that bordered on the same kind of blind obsession demonstrated by other personality cult leaders from the past — Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao, not to mention, the current occupant of the Oval Office. The difference in The Families philosophy was (and remains), only a chosen few, were entitled to have that direct relationship with Christ, and thus, were meant to lead the huddled masses who weren’t among the chosen. We are sheep; they are the shepherds.

The Fellowship, which began hosting their Prayer Breakfasts in the 1930s, was given validation in the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, attended, at the urging of evangelist, Billy Graham. Since that time, every single U.S. President has appeared at these yearly events. Again, not everyone is aware of the true nature of these breakfasts. But those who do, consider themselves the leaders and power brokers of the world. They have taken the Latin term “Vox Populi” (Voice of the People), to mean they are the voice of the people.

Ironically, one name in the news recently, Maria Butina, arrested last week as a Russian spy, seems to have had something to do with helping create a Russian branch of The Family, filled with oligarchs closely aligned with — wait for it — Vladimir Putin.

If any of this is beginning to make your head spin, good. I have never been a believer in coincidence. At the very moment, the highest office in this land is held by a wannabe autocrat, with an obvious and astounding man-crush on the person who maintains complete and utter control over the Russian Republic; a man who readily imprisons or murders his enemies (an enemy being anyone who disagrees with him in any way), including those living in foreign lands, should scare the holy living shit out of anyone with an IQ over 20.

When one puts this together with the fact the American branch of The Family, is made up of wealthy and powerful, right wing, fundamentalist zealots, who see themselves as the rightful leaders of this planet, you begin to wonder if you’re losing your mind. Things get even more insane when you add the fact the Republican party, most of whom are fully aware of the role Russia played in the 2016 elections (and are currently trying to repeat in this year’s), have not only done nothing to stop the Russians, but are effectively working to enable them. When you add all these “coincidences” up, it’s easy to make the very short leap to the conclusion, the current relationship between Vladimir Putin, and his American lapdog in the White House, is intentional, and has been on the drawing board, for quite a while.

I keep hearing people on the right talk about “the Deep State.” The term flows easily and readily from the lips of the average Republican voter. But when you ask just what the “Deep State” is, and who’s involved in it, they can’t really say. They seem to believe it has something to do with George Soros (the rich liberal), Barack Obama (aka the black guy) and Hillary Clinton (you know, the woman who ran a child sexual slavery racket, out of the basement of a D.C. pizzeria which, interestingly enough, doesn’t have a basement!). They regurgitate Fox “News” talking points, as if they’re facts, totally ignoring the actual fact the station is owned by publishing billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, the man responsible for turning his network into the propaganda arm of the Republican party.

After listening to this morning’s interview with Jeff Sharlet, and doing a modicum of research on the web, I have come to the conclusion, in all likelihood, the Deep State, if it exists, is not a group of American lefties, whose goal is to take control of the United States. Rather, it’s an international group of ultra-rich, mostly white, fundamentalist Christian, right-wing corporatists and politicians, who have taken and twisted the words of Jesus Christ, so they, alone, can look at themselves as the chosen people. Naturally, because borders have no meaning to this new world order, it makes perfect sense they’ve allied themselves with Russian oligarchs, and their dictator-in-chief, Vladimir Putin. Professor Sharlet didn’t say it, but my takeaway is, their goal is nothing short of, complete and utter control of the planet. For some strange reason, that reminded me of someone else — another “world leader” of the 1940s, who believed he was the leader of a master race, and had no problem murdering millions to prove it.

If this doesn’t scare the ever-living shit out of you, you’re either insane, dead, or a member of The Family.

I Am An Actor!

I am an actor. It’s a simple enough statement to make. But as my mother — a best-selling writer of romance novels — used to say, ‘when I tell people I’m a writer, someone always asks, in a somewhat condescending tone, if I’ve ever been paid to write. My answer is quite simple — if I hadn’t been paid to do it, I wouldn’t call myself a writer.’

So, yes — over the past 43 years, I have been paid to act, direct, write and teach. I took a course on filmmaking a number of years back, taught by a theatrical attorney, who told us, ‘when people ask what you do, don’t hesitate — you tell them, I’m a filmmaker!’ Once I directed my first short, I was able to add that to my hyphenates, as well. But through it all, I have always thought of myself, first and foremost, as an actor.

Six months ago, a surgical mishap virtually stripped me of my voice. Due to that, having spent most of the past 43 years, either on stages around the country, or in front of film cameras, has taken on new meaning. I hope, pray and believe my voice will return. I have to believe that. But there’s also a persistent, nagging voice in my head (the bastard voice), which keeps saying, “what if it doesn’t come back? What will that do to the person you see yourself as? How will it affect the rest of your life?”

The immediate answer is, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, it scares the ever loving shit out of me — that much I know. But if I was told I would never able to act again, what would I do? How would that affect my sense of self? This is the question that has been bouncing around and pounding in my head over the past six months.

I can certainly continue to write (obviously). But when it comes to theater or film, I have always written for me, the actor. Do I have the ability to hand over dialogue and the juicy roles I’ve written for me to play? After 43 years as a professional (and even before that, starting in 6th grade, and continuing through my senior year of high school), I wrote roles for me, the actor. The idea of having to hand those roles to others, is infuriating, frustrating, scary, and mind numbing.

Then we come to directing and teaching. For months now, I’ve pondered if, at the very least, I would be able to, once again, stand in front (or at the back) of a room, surrounded by other actors, and be able to impart the knowledge and wisdom I’ve gained surviving 43 years in the entertainment industry. How do I do so, without the voice I’ve always had. A voice which, even if I begin the day with the ability to speak at all, is gone by the end of the day. Likewise, how do I sit in an empty theater, looking at a stage full of actors, or on a film set, with actors and the entire crew looking to me for leadership. How do I do that?

Bouncing these questions off the person I trust more than anyone on this earth, my wife, Tanya, forced me to do some heavy duty thinking about my future. I have the great good fortune to be married to an incredibly talented woman who, can not only boast the same hyphenates as me, but is a helluva lot smarter. She told me she believed with all her heart, my voice will return. In the meantime, however, she pointed out what really should have been obvious — we own microphones and speakers — what’s stopping me from using our sound equipment, to help me teach and direct again (told you she was smarter than me).

Mulling all this over, I’ve come to realize, the only thing stopping me is me. Fear of the unknown, or, more appropriately, fear of having to find a new way to do what I’ve been doing pretty much my entire life. Can an old dog learn new tricks?

The irony of all this is, the major principle I’ve always taught my students, as well as the actors I’ve directed is, be fearless! Take chances. Risk making a fool of yourself. If you fuck up, fuck up BIG! Because the only way to succeed in this business, as well as survive it, is to keep going, no matter what! Listen to yourself, trust your instincts, and no matter how many times you get smacked down, get your ass back up and try again.

I’ve been acting, writing, directing and teaching professionally, for 43 years. And for the first time in all those years, the person I had to teach my own major acting principle to, was me.

2018 Stomps On (Me)!

A number of people have asked lately, “how’s your voice doing?” So I went back and realized that my post of April 23rd, So This Is 2018, was something of a cliff hanger. That being the case, I guess it’s time for me to post an update.

When we last left our hero (that’s me, in this case), he had no voice, whatsoever, and was desperately trying to get an operation date for the surgery which stood a chance — just a chance, mind you — of allowing him (me) to talk again.

After a week or more of wrangling a surgical date, my darling wife, Tanya, finally got my ENT’s office (for the uninitiated, ENT stands for an Ears, Nose, Throat doctor) to set a surgical date. The date chosen was May 3rd, which has to mean something, as that’s also my late mother’s birthday. I guess I figured she’d really be looking down on me, sending support. The surgery was to take place at Georgetown University Hospital, in Washington, DC. For those of you unfamiliar with navigating D.C. by car, let me just say this — I would rather be driving in fucking Times Square on New Year’s Eve, than dealing with traffic and directions in this godforsaken city! At one point, finding the place was going so badly, I’d swear I heard my GPS actually say, “really?”

Fortunately, knowing how much fun it is to get anywhere in D.C. by car, Tanya and I had allotted enough time, and were actually on time for check-in. I went through the usual hospital crap, got my little wristband so they wouldn’t mistake me for a colonoscopy patient, and was put in a little room to await my surgery. My doctor came by, to reassure me, and the chief of the team that would be administering anesthesia, also dropped by. I was incredibly impressed that, unlike the surgery which got me into this mess in the first place, I was going to have a “team” of anesthesiologists.

At this point, I should probably do a quick recap of what happened to create the need for this surgery (for those who have not yet read my April 28th blog). On February 12th, I had surgery to repair a double hernia — such a bargain! Two for the price of one! I was chatting with people & talking as they wheeled me into operating room, asking what kind of music I liked. As I was saying the words, “classic rock, of course,” the anesthesia took hold, and I went to la la land (not the one in that crappy, overrated movie).

I woke up an hour or so later, tried to say something, and nothing came out. No voice. Nada. No one could figure out what happened until I was sent to the ENT, who explained how the anesthesiologist in surgery #1, must have put the bulb which was inserted down my throat in order to pump the anesthesia in, more than likely either hit my vocal cord itself, or hit something that hit my vocal cord. In any event, I had a paralyzed left vocal cord.

Given my principle source of income is acting, not having a voice was kind of a problem. It kinda makes submitting myself for roles, let alone auditioning, pointless. The ENT had originally suggested we wait six weeks, to see if the vocal cord could heal on it’s own. The fact it hadn’t, meant the next step was a not too invasive surgery on my throat, to see if that could work. This brings us up-to-date.

So there I was, being wheeled into an operating theatre (the only theatre I’d be seeing for a while) for my second surgery this year. The team of anesthesiologists went to work, and I went out, quickly. The concept was simple. The surgeon would fill the place where my vocal cord would normally rest, with a gel compound that lasts three to six months. During this time, the hope is, the vocal cord will miraculously start working on its own. The kicker is, you have to wait a full year, if necessary, to see if it works. If it doesn’t, then we get invasive (out of kindness to you, dear readers, I will refrain from describing the gory details of that surgery, as it was described to me).

In any event, when I came to in the recovery room, Tanya was waiting for me with post-surgical instructions from the doctor. These included the need for me to remain totally silent for the next 24-48 hours. That may not seem like a lot, but for those of you who know me, trying to speak for that period of time, especially since I wanted to take my “repaired” vocal cord out for a test spin, was…Well, let’s just call it, torturous!

While I was sleeping, Tanya had also spoken to the doctor and chief anesthesiologist. She was told I had the smallest larynx they’d ever seen on an adult male (I suppose if something on me had to be small, I’d prefer that to…). Anyway, my larynx was so small, the anesthesiologist had to use the smallest tube they had, and even then my surgeon had to use something akin to a dentist’s mirror, to be able to see down my throat, to the vocal cord. Further, they told Tanya their assumption was, the first anesthesiologist must have paralyzed the vocal cord when putting the tube in, because he couldn’t see he was hitting it.

This is just the kind of information someone who’s semi-comatose, wants to hear upon awakening.

I somehow made it through the 48 hours before first testing my voice. When I did, what came out was an incredibly raspy version of my voice. I continued testing it over the next few days, only to discover two things. 1) My voice will start the day raspy and hoarse, but if I continue speaking throughout the day, will fade to nothing by nightfall. 2) I have a projection range of anywhere from three to, at best, eight feet, or so. Beyond that, I can’t be heard. And if, g_d forbid, there’s ambient sound, as in a supermarket, or Starbucks, I have to be right in the persons ear to make myself audible.

And while I had to admit it was better than it had been before surgery #2 (I was no longer choking on beverages and food), it was still — how shall I phrase this delicately — completely fucked up!

My ENT’s next suggestion was, I should start vocal therapy. He thought it might be a helpful thing. However, when I went to the therapist (which I’m still doing), she treated me and my situation, as if it was going to be permanent. She gave me a frighteningly long list of foods she strongly urged me to avoid, practically all of which were the mainstays of my diet. She also suggested I avoid air-conditioning, as it would dry out my throat.

We’ve been having something of a heat wave here in MD. Last week we had four days where the heat index was more than 110 degrees. Was I supposed to turn off the central air during that? Because I would like to keep some small semblance of my sanity, we came to a few compromises on the “Do/Do Not” list, which continue to this day.

Two months later, this is where we remain. Although I technically do have one, my voice still sucks. I certainly can’t act, sing or even direct a play or film. I avoid talking to people on the phone, because a) they usually can’t understand what I’m saying; or b) If I do talk, it hurts like hell, and I have to usually breathe steam, after. On the pus side, I can still write! As this is pretty much the only form of communication left to me at present, I don’t consider it a small thing. And, lo and behold, I can now eat and drink, without choking. I don’t recommend this as a fun way to lose weight.

I have also sent my records to a medical malpractice attorney who, I’m hoping, will see a case here. As of this coming Thursday, July 12th, I will have been in this condition for exactly six months. I really don’t know how to describe the pain, anger, frustration, rage, and general feelings of insanity the past six months have engendered in me.

Also, although I’m not really the praying type, in this case I’ve been making an exception. I hope, pray, meditate on reaching that miraculous moment, when my vocal cord starts working normally again. I’ve got 10 months to see if it happens, and also retain what little sanity I have left.

Oh! I also forgot one of the most important things I’ve been missing out on. Every time the current resident of the Oval Office (Agolf Twitler, Cheetolini, BLOTUS, He Who Must Not Be Named — take your pick) comes on the television screen, I don’t have the wherewithal to scream back at that motherfucking, son of a bitch, spouting bullshit through my television!

Was that an uncivil way to end this post?

This Is the Year That Is

So, I joined Twitter this year. Now that may not mean much to most people, but I had spent years avoiding Twitter like it was the plague. My youngest brother pleaded with me to open an account. “It’s the best free marketing tool for indie filmmakers, anywhere,” he said. Other friends echoed that thought. But through it all, I stood strong. “I do not need another social media site, usurping my time & mental acuity.”

There was another reason I never opened a Twitter account — I love words. I love describing things vividly, and in great detail. Hell, I’m a writer! Okay, I’m also an actor-director & acting teacher. But given the current non-state of my voice (that’s another blog), writing is the only hyphenate I have left. And, Twitter, especially when it first took off, only allowed posters 140 characters. It was my feeling then (and is now), there is nothing I think important enough to write about which I could possibly express in 140 characters. What kind of word-smithing can you do with 140 characters?

Toward the end of September, 2017, Twitter doubled the allotted characters allowed posters to 240. For me, that still wasn’t enough to bother with it. If I had something to express, I’d either post a blog about the topic here, or on Facebook and LinkedIn, where I do have accounts.

Even so, the pressure exerted from friends, demanding I join the Twitterverse, continued unabated. As 2017 came to an end, I retained my virgin-status re Twitter. I was so happy to leave 2017 behind, it never dawned on me what fun surprises 2018 might have in store for me.

As described in a previous blog, 2018 started with a bang. Early in January, my doctor found a double hernia which required surgery. The surgery was performed on February 12th. Considering my fear of hospitals and surgery, I went into it with as positive an attitude as possible. I was chattering away as the anesthetic took hold in the operating room. I woke up a few hours later, barely able to make a sound, other than a croak. And now, almost six months on, time which included a second surgery to try and fix the damage caused by the first surgery, my voice is still a bare shadow of it’s former self. I can talk a little. But it comes out sounding incredibly hoarse, is painful, and is usually gone by the end of the day. Oh, joy.

What to do?

The obvious answer, write. My fingers still worked. As it was also pretty much the only way I had to communicate, especially if I wanted to express emotions like anger, frustration, rage, love, happiness, fulfillment, joy…Oh, who the fuck am I kidding. Love, yes. But happiness, joy, and fulfillment were/are in somewhat short supply at the moment. On the plus side, for communication, I had email, instant messaging, Facebook, and this blog. I also have a screenplay which needs a bit of reworking (fuck you very much, Harvey Weinstein!). With all these at the handy, at least one of my professional hyphenates was still open to me.

And then there was Twitter.

It was March, I believe, when a group of friends pretty much ordered me to open a Twitter account, which I finally did — grudgingly. I started out following, and finding followers among my friends and family, extending into the various communities to which I belong. I had other actors, writers, directors and filmmakers. I had progressives, and members of the kink community. I did my best to stay away from anyone who even hinted at having positive feelings towards He Who Must Not Be Named (dubbed Agolf Twitler by someone on the web, which has pretty much become the only name I use when referring to the bastard. I sometimes shorten it to, Twitler, but either way, it fits).

I was fairly choosy about following people at first. I chose from among people I like and admire — smart, talented, funny, politically-oriented. But over a period of time, I started to get hooked. I spent less and less time on Facebook, and much more on Twitter. The immediacy of communication with large groups of people at once, was like a drug. The 240 character limit has been less of an issue than I expected. I’ve been teaching myself to edit comments down to only the most necessary of words, which has been an interesting experience for me as a writer. Oh fuck! I was hooked.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, sounds pretty good. And to be honest, I have found there’s an unexpected upside to Twitter I didn’t expect. But life is balance — if there’s an up side, it means there’s also a down side.

At this point, I should explain something. As an actor (writer, director, yadda yadda yadda), you learn to face and accept rejection. If you’re smart and experienced, you can use it to motivate yourself even further. In the entertainment industry, when you hear the words, “no thanks,” there’s usually nothing personal attached to it. More than likely it has nothing to do with your talent. Rather, it’s usually with regard to things you have absolutely no control over. Being a director helps with this. I’ve been on the other side of the table, and know how difficult it is to say, “no.” And the “no” usually has little to do with a person’s talent or ability.

However (c’mon — you knew there had to be a “however), when you’re sharing your views, especially political views, the attacks you may receive, and the vitriol with which they’re delivered, can cut you to the core. What makes things even worse is, when you’re attacked by people who should be on the same side as you.

Most of us who use social media, have become very conscious regarding the use of bots and trolls which have been, and are still being used, to cause and/or maintain fractures within the Democratic party. Being aware is a good thing. The not so good thing, especially on Twitter, is, I’ve noticed people are being so cautious, they’ll accuse anyone whose opinion differs from theirs, even in the slightest way, of being a bot or troll.

I learned about this the hard way earlier this week. I preface the following with this — I’m still trying to understand how Twitter works. It drives me insane that if I make a spelling or grammatical mistake, usually because I’m typing too quickly, and posting before I remember to check for mistakes, there’s no edit your comment tool to fix the damn mistake.

But I digress.

I’ve written about my concerns regarding the rift between progressives who supported Sen. Sanders candidacy in 2016, and President Clinton (she won; it was stolen; I refuse to accept He Who Must Not Be Named, as president), in past blogs.

For those new to my blog, as soon as President Clinton won the nomination, I changed my allegiance to her. As a native New Yorker, I have been all too familiar with Twitler, for the past 35 years or so. I know him to be a megalomaniacal, narcissistic, misogynist, racist, with homophobic tendencies, who doesn’t give a flying fuck about anyone other than himself. He is a legend in his own mind. No way I was going to waste a vote like all too many did in 2000.

And though I originally supported Sen. Sanders, it didn’t mean I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see he had his flaws. There is no such thing as the perfect candidate. It is my firm belief, most Sanders supporters did what I did. But there is also no doubt, there were a bunch of angry Sanders people who refused to believe the DNC didn’t steal the nomination from him. Because of this belief, they stubbornly refused to vote for President Clinton, either choosing to stay home, or casting a protest vote for (g_d help us) Jill Stein.

I’m not going to rehash the Sanders/Clinton debate here. I’ve already taken that topic on. What I want to deal with now, is the crap-storm that went down on Twitter, earlier this week.

There were people posting moderate comments which echoed my thoughts regarding the election. But there was also a vehement group of Clinton people, still blaming the Sanders holdouts for the election (which I remind everyone, President Clinton won). And their vehemence was matched by the Sanders holdouts who responded.

In the middle of this, I made the stupid mistake of posting my opinion, stating my belief that no one really knows what happened in 2016. You may have a strong feeling about what happened. You may even be certain. But the truth is, no one really knows. And pretending you do, holding on to your anger, is at least part of what got us where we are today. My point of view is, we all have to get over whatever bug remains up our collective asses. That goes for people on both sides.

This country is on the brink of becoming a fascist state. I believe that, without no doubt whatsoever. The only hope we have left is the coming November election. And this fucking stupid in-fighting is insane. We need to learn from history, before we end up repeating it in the most disastrous way.

Boy, was I a schmuck!

Within minutes I was inundated with insults — mostly staunch Clintonians, but also some Sanders people. The barrage was so nasty and vitriolic, I got off Twitter as quickly possible, and stopped looking at my feed. The remarks were biting and hurtful. But thinking about it over the past few days, I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t some bots, or trolls involved in this attack. It was such a perfect way of maintaining, or even sowing deeper divisions between the Clinton and Sanders people, it had my head spinning

As progressive radio and Free Speech TV’s  Stephanie Miller often says, “we all have to stop trying to re-litigate the election.” And she is absolutely correct. The coming election is our last, best chance to save this country and ourselves. Fuck civility, and fuck going high when they go low, because they always go low, and the high road got us to exactly we are.

Every democrat and every progressive has to get over 2016. It’s over and done with. It’s in the rear view mirror. Let it go. We have to join hands (metaphorically) and fight this battle, together. We have to learn from our mistakes — from the past. Our mantra has to be, “if we don’t learn from the past, we’re sure as hell gonna repeat it.” We have to go after Twitler and his Republican enablers as if our lives depend on it, because they do.