In the old days, a phone call could change everything. These days, the medium of apocalypse is e-mail. The message I am reading is so bizarre that I don't quite know how to react. The sender, a young woman named Bonnie Zane, has read one of my travel books -- "The Size of the World" -- and felt compelled to contact me.
"What you wrote about your brother's death was so moving," she writes. "A few days before I left on a trip to Africa, actor Phil Hartman was murdered. The funeral was such a public affair ... In some way, your book helped me deal with my grief."
The connection with Hartman baffles me, until I read on. Bonnie, I learn, is a Hollywood casting director. She's done work for "Mad About You" and "The Larry Sanders Show." Now, heading her own company, she's involved with two prime-time sitcoms: "Sports Night" and "NewsRadio," which had been Hartman's vehicle until his death last summer.
Bonnie is smart and funny, and our correspondence soon becomes an almost daily event. She learns quickly that I've always dreamed of acting and says she can get me work as an extra on either of her shows. The problem, she admits, is that I'll be bored senseless. Extra work involves whole afternoons of dead time, waiting endless hours for the privilege of being a nobody. Despite my infatuation with the stage, she manages to make this option sound sufficiently humiliating; I never call in the favor.
Then, on the first of October, I return from an appointment to find a message from Bonnie. The (nearly) impossible has occurred. Julie Bean -- "NewsRadio" co-producer, who oversees all the talent on the show -- had to rush her dog to the vet and missed the afternoon casting session. "We're giving you free reign," she told Bonnie. My cyber-friend thus finds herself in possession of a rare prize: an actual speaking role, hers to assign at will.
"Get down here today," she tells me, "and the part is yours."
Despite the vast breadth of this country, American history hasn't spawned a lot of mythic destinations -- kingdoms like Eldorado or Xanadu or Colchis, where a wild fantasy might explode into reality. New York and Las Vegas are close contenders, but they're easily deconstructed; spend a few months in either, and you'll pretty much know where you stand.
Not so Hollywood. The town hovers within a nimbus of unreality, where anything is possible at any time. Since 1911, its back lots and stages have been a looking glass, a portal through which a select few are invited to pass. From the busboys at Johnny Rocket's to the cashier at the Gap, everybody looks their best: No one knows when, or for whom, that gateway is going to open.
Hollywood is the greatest myth-making machine in human history, and millions of visitors pack its studio tours and souvenir shops each year. But the inner sanctum of the film industry -- inside the sound stage itself -- is a guarded and mysterious world, off limits to the casual eye. Within its sea of cranes, cables and monitors lies a sort of island, more remote than Rakahanga: the tiny parcel of land directly beneath the spotlights, behind the clapboard, in the shimmering eye of the Panavision cameras.
It is this place, more than any other, that is the true Mecca of the American psyche -- the place toward which endless shifts of waiters have aspired in vain.
During 1996 and 1997, I spent many hours in the back lots of Paramount Pictures, observing the filming of "Star Trek: First Contact" while researching a book about "Star Trek" in global culture ("Future Perfect," released last June by Viking). But nothing in that experience prepared me for the visceral thrill of being on camera -- no more than scoring a Giants game prepares you to face Robb Nen.
Bonnie drops me off at Ren Mar Studios at 11, well before the noon rehearsal. Ren Mar is a private studio, unaffiliated with the networks. "Golden Girls" was shot here, as was -- until recently -- "Ally McBeal." The exterior of the studio was used as the location for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
Entering the sound stage, I feel just like I did my first day of school: the twittering in the stomach, the dread of one's peers, the overarching desire to avoid disgrace. Bonnie has warned me not to flaunt my "special connection" with her. As far as the other players are concerned, I'm just a lucky dog who landed the role after a garden-variety audition. I know immediately that I won't be able to pull this off; I don't have enough Hollywood agent horror stories to invent a credible alternate life.
Slowly, the sound stage fills with cast and crew: Dave Foley, the show's male lead, a Canadian-born actor who looks like Beaver Cleaver come of age; Stephen Root, who so convincingly played Mission Control chief Chris Kraft in Tom Hanks' "From the Earth to the Moon"; Maura Tierney, whose work I've seen in "Liar Liar" and "Primal Fear." Andy Dick, radio station WNYX's resident imbecile, is already in character; he's swooning off a desk onto a pile of padded gym mats, yelling at everyone to look at him. I'm also introduced to Langdon Bensing, another guest actor who will play an FBI agent. Bensing has twice my number of lines: two.
Root, Foley and Dick are friendly enough. Tierney and the other female lead -- the flame-haired Vicki Lewis -- keep to themselves. The actresses, I've been warned, are rather aloof; it's best not to chat them up. So I gravitate toward Bensing, a struggling actor who's been chasing walk-ons and cameos for years. His biggest break so far was a scene in "Seinfeld," but recent months have been lean. After five minutes he's heard my story -- the real one -- and offers a reality check.
"One time I had six call-backs for a tiny part on 'NYPD Blue,'" he says. "But they decided to go with someone else. After this happened a couple more times, I told my agent not to send me over there anymore. The stress and heartbreak were just too much.
"You have no idea how tough it is," he concludes. "This town is packed with actors who'd give their left nut for your part."
Mike Risner, the second assistant director, approaches us with an affable smile. "Before you get started," he says, "there are a few forms we'd like you to sign."
I've expected as much. Acting is probably a lot like the writing business; they'll want me to sign my life away: "In the event you are caught or killed, the editor will disavow any knowledge of your actions."
The first form is your standard list of medical questions. I check no to everything, sign and move on to the next. After five minutes I hand the papers back to Risner. "So what'd I just sign?"
"The first form was insurance; you're now under our medical protection -- total coverage -- until midnight tonight. The tax and talent forms were your contract. You'll get $576 for the afternoon's work."
"Whoa! I'm getting nearly 600 bucks for this?"
Risner shrugs. "Only if the show doesn't go into reruns. If it does, you get another $576. That's followed by what we call 'residuals': a percentage of all future broadcasts, in any country, until the eventual heat death of the sun." He clears his throat. "Now would you like me to show you to your dressing room?"
I've barely had time to digest this offer when Jason Saville, the first assistant director, walks up and hands me a stack of revised script pages. They're printed on yellow paper, to contrast with the white of the original. I thumb through them eagerly. "Anything I should know about?"
A grim nod. "We cut your line." I stagger, feeling faint. Jason steadies me, grinning devilishly. "Only kidding."
Rehearsals begin shortly after noon. As makeup is not until 3, everyone's still in their street clothes. My appearance -- in Act Two, scene M -- includes the episode's semifamous guest star: the hulking Patrick Warburton, who played Elaine's deadbeat boyfriend Puddy in "Seinfeld."
"NewsRadio" -- one of the most underrated comedies on TV -- was created by 33-year-old wunderkind Paul Simms, formerly the co-executive producer of "The Larry Sanders Show." Nearly all the action takes place in the mock offices of WNYX, a Manhattan radio station. In this episode (the first of a three-part story arc) the station manager (Stephen Root) is hauled off to prison. The reason for this incarceration, we learn, is related to a shady connection with vanished bank robber D. B. Cooper. As soon as this happens, Patrick Warburton's character -- "Johnny Johnson" -- appears out of nowhere and takes control of the WNYX office. Despite his transparent charm, Johnson's takeover is unsolicited, unexpected and totally unwelcome.
Here's what happens in scene M: The station's news director (Dave Foley) brings in two security guards to throw Johnny Johnson out. The guards cross the set to the station manager's office, enter it and shut the door behind them. A moment later the office door opens again and the two guards exit, "laughing convivially" as Johnny Johnson slaps them on their backs.
I play one of the security guards. My single line is spoken as we first cross the set: "This won't take a second."
To the outside world, the films and shows released by Hollywood appear as
seamless theater, with one scene following another and characters behaving
in sensible, predictable ways. In actual fact, a film or TV episode is a
montage of bits and pieces. Scenes are filmed any number of times, from an assortment of camera angles. The best "takes" are later
edited to give an illusion of continuity. It is astonishing how long this
takes. Scene after scene is flubbed as the actors stumble over words,
forget their lines, bump into each other or explode into uncontrolled
The paradoxical upshot of this -- made immediately clear in rehearsal -- is that
it's nearly impossible to screw up. I walk through my scene several times,
under the eye of director Tom Cherones and a cadre of grips, cameramen and
crew. My ears are cocked; I half expect to hear Cherones yell from the
sidelines: "Who the hell is that guy?" To my relief, it doesn't happen.
Visible as I may feel, my part is too small to be obtrusive.
When rehearsal ends, I find myself with something I haven't had all day: an
appetite. No one has to show me the catering table; when I first entered
the sound stage I walked past a wall of food, the opulence of which I
hadn't seen since my last Nepali wedding: sliced turkey and prime rib, five
cheeses, three salads, grapes and kiwis, pound cakes and bagels, candy bars
and melon balls, coolers full of fruit juice and designer waters, urns
filled with steaming coffee, whole-grain breads and spreads, chips and
dips, an avalanche of giddy abundance -- think Big Rock Candy Mountain, or
your junior high school fantasy of becoming student council president and
filling the drinking fountains with soda pop.
But I am being fattened for the kill. For no sooner have I tossed my empty
plate than I feel the hand of Kent Zbornak, unflappable line
producer, on my shoulder.
"Time for your haircut," he says.
This is my mortal terror. My hair falls to my shoulders, as it has done for
years. OK, it isn't exactly the "security guard" look. But what will they
do to me? Images parade through my head of jug-headed Marines, my sister
disowning me, my lover in tears, my friends and editors laughing out loud.
But my Samson-like terrors are assuaged in makeup, as Mary
Guerrero -- hairdresser to the stars -- ties my bib. "I know a few tricks," she
chuckles. Indeed, with a minimum of hacking and a mountain of mousse, this
consummate professional -- who has actually cut Johnny Carson's
hair -- creates a helmet-like coiffure that looks three times shorter than it
is. When she's done I move across the room, where her daughter Jennifer
applies a light palette of makeup to my face. Afterward, she hands me a
mirror. My reaction -- like any red-blooded man after an expert makeover -- is to
wonder if I could get away with this in real life.
Nothing happens for three hours, and then it's dinner time. Everyone eats
together: stars and extras, director and crew. The meal takes place in the
studio's dining room, a short walk from the stage.
After loading my tray, I look around for a place to sit. All my first-day-of-school trepidations come to a head.
Who am I to sit with? Bensing is nowhere in sight, and everyone else is
buddied up. The only table with an available seat is the one where
svelte Julie Bean, executive producer Josh Lieb and -- yikes -- actress Maura
Tierney are sitting. A red light goes on in my head: off-limits.
So I choose an empty table, and stare dejectedly at my Singapore noodles.
Not a minute goes by before I hear Julie call: "Hey! Why don't you come sit
with us?" I lift my tray, grinning sheepishly, and take the seat next to
Josh looks up from his julienne carrots and scrutinizes me. "Hey, aren't
you ... aren't you that travel writer who Bonnie got onto the show?"
I choke on a shiitake mushroom. "That's right."
"Neat!" he says.
"Wow -- a real writer!" Julie echoes.
"Not just a writer. A travel writer!" Maura croons.
The meal passes in a blur. They want to know where I've been, what I've
seen, who I've met. They want to know where they can buy my books -- and if
I'll sign them. Most of all, they want to hear about the world -- the mythical
"real" world, that lies somewhere beyond the Hollywood hills. It's a
totally unexpected turn of events, like going to a remote region of China
and having amazed locals pull at the hairs on your arm.
When dinner ends, and everyone disperses for their dressing rooms, I
suddenly realize: I never asked Maura for her autograph.
At 6 o'clock, I make my way up to wardrobe to try on my security guard
outfit. The previous day, the costume designer had phoned for my
measurements; indeed, the entire uniform -- from black socks to V-neck
T-shirt -- fits like a glove. Most amazing of all are the shoes. I'd just
spent three weeks combing the Bay Area, without success, for a pair of
sneakers that fit me. These industrial clunkers feel like second feet; I
could run a marathon in them.
"NewsRadio" is filmed in front of a live audience. Just before 7 the
crowd filters in, moving into the rows of chairs tiered above the set. The
theater seats about 150, enough to provide a good foundation for the
inevitable laugh track. The track will be sweetened, of course, but it's
good to know that we will be giving an actual performance, with all the
tension and responsibility that implies.
By the time the audience has settled in, the energy on the set is palpable.
An air of informality remains, but there's an edge. Even the stars feel
it. This is where it gets fun; this is where the stakes get raised. I'm
charged with a giddy thrill, the same rush I'd feel before diving into
unexplored waters or sneaking into a forbidden tribal rite.
But this adventure, I gulp, will have a lot more viewers -- what we do here
tonight will appear on prime-time television.
Since the show is indeed filmed live, the story is followed in
chronological order. It's a good script, and the audience laughs. They
laugh the first time a scene is filmed; they even laugh the second time.
And by some miracle of gullibility -- repetition being the soul of wit -- they
laugh during the third, fourth and fifth takes as well. We all do. It's a
particularly absurd episode; even the cameramen are yukking it up.
As my moment under the spotlights approaches, I find myself entering a zone
of peculiar calm. I realize, quite suddenly, that I am completely at ease
in these surroundings, among this extended family of actors and crew. And I
feel totally, almost dreamily, safe; I sense that no harm can befall me. The
feeling is strangely familiar, like some memory from my travels. Then I
realize with a start: The last time I felt this way was in Dharamsala,
India, sharing a couch with the Dalai Lama.
There's a pause between takes. Risner signals to me, and I move into the
mock "elevator hallway" that opens onto the WNYX office suite. My fellow,
nonspeaking security guard -- played by a Korean extra -- is already there. As I
await our scene, I spy an unfamiliar man of my height and build, leaning
against the wall. He smiles at me, then affects a serious mien. "This won't
take a second," he pronounces. I raise an eyebrow.
"So you memorized my line, huh? Impressive."
"I had to." He shrugs. "I'm your understudy."
"My understudy? For one lousy line?"
"Something could happen to you. And the show must go on."
"What could happen?" I scan him for weapons.
"I don't know. Anything," he says hopefully. "You might have a sudden heart
attack; a klieg light could fall on your head; you might upchuck a melon
"Ready on the set!"
Dave Foley joins us in the wings, wearing a silly grin; he's fully in
character. The Panavision cameras move into position, and the film begins
to roll. From out of sight, I hear the clarion call: "Action!"
Dave starts to walk. I follow him onto the stage as if moving through a
tunnel, my peripheral vision blinded by the lights. My exhilaration is
extreme. To my right, the vague paramecium of the audience holds its
breath. On my left waits the assembled WNYX staff, watching my progress
with dubious hope.
Dave points: "You'll find him in that office, right over there."
I nod soberly. "This won't take a minute."
I open the office door and enter. The second guard follows, closing it
behind us. Johnny Johnson claps a hand on my shoulder, puts a finger to
his lips, and bends by the partition wall listening for our cue. A beat
after it comes, he jerks open the door and addresses us with glee: "Great
to see you guys again!"
We leave the room in a jovial pack, exiting by the same route we entered.
Just like that, it's over. I walk, in a sort of postcoital daze, toward
Kent Zbornak is standing by a bank of monitors.
"I flubbed my line!" I whisper with shame. "I was supposed to say
'second' -- not 'minute.' One line, and I botched it!"
Kent grins. "No, you improvised," he says. "It was great."
It's past 11 when the actors finish their work, and the audience clears
from the studio. I return the uniform, remove the shoes and bid farewell
to the players and crew. Huge is my regret as I depart the sound stage,
pausing under the dormant red light that indicates whether the show is "On the Air."
There is a scene, about halfway through "Lawrence of Arabia," when T. E.
Lawrence is forced to execute a feuding Arab. Afterward, Lawrence finds
himself trembling uncontrollably -- not from guilt, but because he enjoyed it.
The revelation is earth-shattering, and his life will never be the same.
Standing at the threshold, I feel much the same way. My brief career as an
actor, as a citizen of Planet Hollywood, has been devastating -- I can't bear
The angel and devil of reason and stage fever are already on my shoulders,
sketching out my future in a parallel universe. I could leave the vipers'
den of freelance writing behind. I'd sublet my flat and take a leave from
the Bay Area. Money? Jamba Juice would be out of the question -- but maybe
I could work my way up from bussing tables at Pinot Hollywood. It wouldn't be a
full-time thing; just a couple of weeks, until a high-powered agent
recognized me from my "NewsRadio" cameo and instigated my Big Break. Why not?
I may not be the next Schwarzenegger, but people do say I look a bit like
I turn at the door, facing the cavernous sound stage one last time.
"I'll be back," I whisper.