Confessions of a utility actor

I'm not a star. I'm not even a "name." I'm just a workaday actor trying to make a living. And after 20 years of waiting for that big break, I'm ready to move on.


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Peter Birkenhead
March 25, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

When I tell people I'm an actor, the second thing they ask is always, "What's so-and-so like?" So I keep a mental card catalog of pithy responses designed to strike just the right balance between regular-guy humility and possible access to medical records. George Clooney is a hugger. Portia DeRossi smells really good. And Patrick Dempsey is very skinny. This Tuesday night I'm on an episode of "House," and sooner or later I know I'll be at a party telling someone that Hugh Laurie rides a motorcycle to work.

But to get to that second question I have to answer the first -- "What shows have you been on?"-- which is usually asked as if I'm on trial for impersonating an actor. I don't know what makes people so junkyard-dog proprietary about television shows and their favorite stars. Maybe it's the intimacy of the TV-watching experience -- after all, we usually do it at home, alone, on couches. We think of actors as people we see every night in our living rooms, like old friends we just haven't gotten around to meeting yet. So if we don't know who someone is, how can he be an actor?

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The answer: with a very thick skin.

I am not one of those "old friend" actors. I'm not a star -- I'm not even a "name." But I'm not an extra either. Actors like me occupy the space in people's minds reserved for utility infielders, station wagons and pizza places. For most people, actors are divided into two groups: Martin Sheen and furniture. You're part of the pantheon or part of the scenery.

When I was young I studied with Uta Hagen, who wrote the seminal actor's handbook "Respect for Acting." And that's what my friends and I wanted back then: respect, for acting. That and girls. We very much wanted our work to be well thought of, admired, but we also wanted to be famous. Not too famous. Just enough to get sex, but not stalked. Theater famous.

Mostly we just wanted to act. I know that may be hard to believe, but when you do it semi-right, acting is actually about getting away from your ego. It's like riding a rocket away from your ego and becoming weightless. And the two things you're incapable of when you're floating up there are thinking and caring what other people think. Any actor who has ever taken even a few baby steps in the direction of that stupid delight knows how close to perfection it feels -- and also how much sex and respect it gets you afterward.

When I left New York eight years ago, I'd been doing pretty well -- a couple of yearlong runs in the Broadway shows "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound," a few national tours, a bunch of regional theater. I had a decent if hardly spectacular career going -- I usually got good reviews, and casting directors were sometimes flattering -- but after I had been in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks, I was pretty sure I would eventually have a theater named after me. That's because, on more than one occasion, casting directors had pulled their glasses off very dramatically and said to me, "You are a great actor." Exactly like that. Not "You're a great actor," with the contraction, but "You are a great actor." All five words, spoken slowly. I was shocked. I was used to auditioning in big rehearsal studios in New York, where I had to project to be heard by the people at the other end of the room, but in L.A. I was suddenly auditioning in tiny, little well-appointed offices, with upholstered furniture, and I was still giving theater-size performances, full of life-and-death intensity and semaphore-like body language. Yet I was getting this very dramatic praise.

So I started to believe it. I am a great actor. I stared at the ceiling at night and rehearsed the avuncular speeches I would make to students accepting the Peter Birkenhead Scholarship at Juilliard. And then, after a third week passed and I hadn't signed an actual contract, I started to realize that, in Hollywood-speak, "You are a great actor" loosely translates to "You're an actor."

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The thing you want to hear at an audition is silence -- the sound of people quietly smiling. This means, Hey, we're gonna see you next week; no need to blow smoke in case you become famous; you're getting the job and that's flattery enough. Over the next few months, I learned how to stop playing to the balcony and start playing to the couch -- and I started to hear a lot more encouraging silence. I was getting the hang of Hollywood.

I finally landed my first television job, playing a fast-talking schmuck of an agent on a Steven Bochco show called "Murder One." Even I was struck dumb by how good I was in the audition. I don't think I even said "thank you" as I left the room, because I was too busy thinking, "I am a great actor."

Now, there is almost no describing how terrible I was on "Murder One," but here's my best shot: You know that famous "deer in the headlights" look? Well, imagine the same deer about two weeks later. You know, after the stuffing and mounting. That's the kind of taxidermic look of fear that you will see on my face if you ever see this scene, which you will only if they create a show called "TV's Funniest Bloopers and Apparent Brain Hemorrhages."

Here's what you won't see if you ever catch this episode: Bochco, I swear, sitting five feet away from me, with his head in his hands. Seriously. Like, "How did my life come to this?" Like, "How is it possible that all the safeguards we have in place to prevent this kind of disaster from happening could all fail on the same day?"

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But I got better. I did some recurring roles on a few shows, and I was a guest star on a bunch of others. I even did another Steven Bochco show, "NYPD Blue," playing a fast-talking schmuck of a stockbroker (hey, wait a minute ), whom Dennis Franz "liked" for a murder, and I started settling into the Los Angeles version of the working actor's life.

Here's what that life is like: Only 5 percent of people who call themselves actors earn enough each year from acting to support themselves. So the number of actors who drive to work in a Porsche, or home through ornate electronic gates, is microscopic. I drive a Honda Hybrid, and I park it on the street in front of my apartment building. I did own a house once, with my ex-wife, but home ownership and marriage are pretty fragile things for people who sometimes wonder if they'll ever work again.

So I learned early that when I'm on a set I should do my best to enjoy myself, which isn't always easy. A Hollywood set is basically a boredom factory; I can't think of a single day job I've had that wasn't more pleasant, in a material sense, than working in television. At least when I waited tables I was in a decorated, well-lit place. There was the smell of fresh food cooking, and sometimes music was playing. It's not like that on a soundstage. A soundstage smells like plywood, heated rubber and Teamsters. It sounds like the inside of a police van on a stakeout, except when it sounds like a house being renovated. So I usually find myself spending a lot of time visiting the "crafts services table" -- the place where all the doughnuts and Twizzlers are kept. Working in television can be as boring as watching television, and it's best dealt with exactly the same way: by taking breaks to go stare at food, and sometimes eat it.

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Series regulars, the stars of the shows, all have time killing down to an art. Tyne Daly knits like crazy. George Clooney shoots hoops. On the best days, there's a real foxhole-buddies kind of feeling on the set, and it's pretty easy for me to be seduced into believing I'm on a kind of egalitarian, socialist TV kibbutz, where everyone comes to work in jeans and eats breakfast together. There's a lot more getting along than you might think, and everyone is busy pitching in. The Steadicam guy is trying to walk backward around the actors as they do emergency rhinoplasty, and the props guy is trying to find a scalpel that has suddenly been added to the scene. It's Mickey and Judy with $10 million.

The first thing I do when I get to work is make friends with the director of photography. He's the one responsible for the way every shot is framed and lit. At my most well rested I have dark circles under my eyes, and the D.P. is the one who decides whether I get to look like a really tired Jerry Seinfeld or a dead Steve Buscemi. This is the kind of thing I never cared about in New York, but need to care about now.

I finally became a series regular on a very bad Ted Danson sitcom called "Becker," playing his only mildly schmucky cousin/accountant. Now, I'd be lying if I said my first thought wasn't "I'm gonna get to take my new girlfriend to Ted Danson's house for lunch, and she's gonna think I'm the shit." But my second thought was about getting back to New York, and what a two-bedroom apartment might be going for in, oh, about five years. I got tons of laughs during rehearsals for the pilot; Ted Danson even told me I was "great" (uh oh), and the night we shot the pilot, his wife, Mary Steenburgen, grabbed me by the arm and said "I love your character most of all." Just before the show, I took a walk around the place to soak in the feeling of my new home, and for the first time since I'd worked on Broadway, I let myself imagine a life that included enough health insurance to have children. But I was fully fluent in Hollywood-speak by then, so I knew that when, at the party on the set afterward, the president of Paramount Television gave me a big hug and said, "You are going to be at Paramount for a very long time," it meant I was going to be at Paramount for about 11 more minutes. My character was cut from the show a month later.

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The executive producer called me to deliver the news and said he had just gotten off the phone with Les Moonves, the president of CBS, and that Les had said, among other things, "I'm a big Peter Birkenhead fan." As my grandfather might have said, "With fans like that, who needs hot air?"

I thought I would be devastated -- I wanted to be devastated. But the truth is, when I saw an episode of "Becker" a few months later, I could hear the distinct and comforting sound of a bullet whizzing by my head. And you know what was most comforting of all? That it happened again, right away. The first job I got after "Becker" was on "Frasier," and that character was cut, too. I realized that losing jobs was just part of the job. My metamorphosis into an L.A. actor was complete.

I've worked a lot since then, on shows like "Ally McBeal," "The West Wing," "Six Feet Under" and "Grey's Anatomy" -- mostly in parts that were interesting enough to keep me chasing the next job and well paying enough to cover the rent. None of that would have happened if I hadn't gotten hugged at Paramount, so I'm grateful things went the way they did. And now they're going a new way.

The guiding principle in television is "get the shot," which means keep shooting, and talking, no matter what happens, because it might be good enough to move on and finish the episode on time and keep your job. So actors keep plugging away, trying to get the shot -- get their shot at making it -- even when the odds are staggeringly against them. But the definition of "making it" keeps changing as you hit your 40s and people like Donald Trump become stars.

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Don't get me wrong, I'm still an actor -- I'm still available for the calls when they come -- but mostly I'm busy with other things. I've written the word "actor" in the "occupation" space on my tax return for 20 years, but this year I'll probably put "writer."

My old dogmas about doing only the noble work of theater became obsolete as soon as I discovered the nobility to be had in punching a studio clock and getting paid for an honest day's work. But I'm not sure how much longer I'll be doing that. Being an actor requires a belief in limitless possibilities, and these days I actually prefer limits. When you suspect a star-making, life-changing gig is around every corner it becomes difficult to believe in anything else. But I still watch television, and I love seeing my friends when they're in something. It's always like watching a small triumph: Someone's working again after a dry spell, or got their dental insurance back.

A little happy ending, at least for now.


Peter Birkenhead

Peter Birkenhead’s work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, The LA Review of Books, U.S. News, MORE, Marie Claire, The Awl, The Morning News, Tikkun, and other publications. He is the author of "Gonville: a memoir."

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