Every year during the Academy Awards ceremony, I watch some tearful Hollywood actor raise his Oscar to the sky and gush about his parents’ unconditional support.
And every year, I remember back when I wanted to be an actor so much that I started doing it alongside the job I already had. One day my dream came true—only to have it blow up in my face.
Growing up in Texas, my parents cautioned me against becoming a thespian. But the acting bee stung me anyway. In junior high, I was cast as the lead and assumed I’d found my calling. I got a part in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible the following year. When the show ended, my parents forbade me from any more drama activities.
“Something against Puritans?” I asked.
“Interferes with your job,” my father said.
I worked 15 hours per week flipping beef patties at Jack-in-the-Box. Though I swore I could juggle both, my parents wouldn’t budge. My dad, a destitute sharecropper’s son, had grown up in the Ozark Mountains during the Great Depression. As the youngest of 12, he quickly learned to either work hard or go hungry, dropping out of school in the eighth grade. Art was a luxury people that people like us couldn’t afford.
Despite my father’s professed motivation for the ban on acting, I suspected another when, at the cast party, the muscular lead actor told me he dated men. As a nice, Southern Baptist teenager, I couldn’t be seen talking to degenerates, and said so. Walking away, I averted my eyes so I wouldn’t see the way his biceps popped out of his polo shirt.
Inside, I was thrilled. I’d read about gay men in the environs of San Francisco and New York, but I’d thought guys like that didn’t exist in South Austin. If they did, they hightailed it out fast. My parents must have been worried the theater was a refuge for queers, and feared their impressionable son could be persuaded into what they called a “peculiar lifestyle.”
After college, I began working in television advertising sales, which allowed me to be adjacent to my dream career without having to risk revealing my sexual orientation. Finally, at 30, I came out to my family. To my shock, my parents offered unconditional love and support. According to my mom, my dad had been saying since I was sixteen that I must be gay–not because of junior high drama club, but because a boy once called me long-distance from Nebraska. I promptly fainted.
Feeling unshackled, I began acting as a hobby. I daydreamed about a breakthrough role, one which would grab the attention of a talent agent–and maybe even allow me to blow a farewell kiss to the business world and start my life in show business.
By age 40, I was a media executive living in Manhattan. But whenever I could, I snuck away to work background and bit parts for movies and television shoots. There were tons of hunky young male actors, and just as many saggy-skinned old-timers seeking roles. But a hole existed among the middle-aged. With my soccer-dad looks, I got steady work. Even if the roles were only walk-ons in shoestring productions, each felt like a gift.
When a director named Aron asked me if I’d like to audition for an understudy role, I quickly accepted, especially given that the play was Israel Horovitz’s LINE.
LINE is the longest running play in New York City theater history. Since 1974, the 13th Street Repertory Theater has staged the show, which has featured talents such as Chris Meloni, John Cazale, Richard Dreyfus and Chazz Palminteri early in their careers. The plot is about four men and one woman vying for first place in a queue for something, although none of them–or the audience–knows what.
Two days later, Aron called. He said one of the original actors had dropped out. The role of Arnall, a germaphobe who watches while his wife has sex with every other guy onstage, was mine. I expressed doubt about whether I’d realistically be able to play a neurotic, emasculated dork.
“Are you kidding? You’ll be perfect!” he assured me.
This was the break I’d been waiting for.
The rest of the cast had rehearsed together for weeks, but I’d have eight days until opening night on the following Saturday. Though I threw myself into memorizing my lines, that week I needed to work very late at my job every night. By the time Thursday came, I called Aron, warning him I might not have the lines down 100%.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me. “I trust you.” He told me that we were set to have a full house and that his acting mentor, Barbara Vann, the legendary founder of the Medicine Show Theater, would be there. I gulped, muttering that I’d do my best.
Saturday afternoon at rehearsal, Aron looked calm at first. Soon, however, he began running fingers through his wavy, black hair, sighing frequently.
I kept missing my cues and started calling for my lines. Frustrated, Jan, a brooding, handsome actor, playing the role Chris Meloni once had, picked up his script and threw it on the floor.
“Not fair!” he yelled, pointing at me. “People are paying good money for this show. We have to cancel tonight.”
A drop of sweat trickled down my neck.
Hearing the commotion, Edith O’Hara, the 96-year-old owner of the theater, appeared in the back of the house. Using seat backs to anchor herself, she made her way to the proscenium and stood before the cast.
“The show must go on,” she said, her voice shaking. She didn’t look angry. On the contrary, she appeared calm, asking the cast to run the play from the beginning. As we did, I used my copy of the script to mark down the notes O’Hara offered about my character’s motivation and blocking. We concocted a way for me to cheat by photocopying pages and taping them inside a newspaper I could use as a prop.
Tensions were high in the half hour before curtain. The theater lobby was already packed. During our warm-up, Lisa, who played my wife, put her hands on her hips and turned to the cast. She told us to speak loudly on stage because she was basically deaf in one ear and had half of her hearing in the other.
“One hearing aid battery just died. I forgot to bring spares,” she said.
Jan groaned. Stunned, the rest of us remained silent.
“One more thing,” Lisa added. “The other battery is acting up and could go out at any time.”
Things did not look great. We had a full house. I didn’t know my cues. Lisa couldn’t hear. The rest of the cast was livid, but not me. Lisa’s announcement soothed my nerves. The situation was clear: We’d either produce a miracle or go down in flames. My bet was on the former.
When the lights came up onstage, I was jittery, but the play ran smoothly. I delivered my lines and met my cues, even if I did have to peek at my newspaper every so often.
There’s a scene in LINE where Arnall, the character I played, is chased by his wife, Molly. Once the running stopped, I reached for the newspaper, which I’d stuck in my back pocket. Nothing was there.
The actor playing Fleming turned to me and delivered his line, “You just let your old lady do that to you? I mean, does she do it all the time?”
I looked into the audience. My script had fallen off stage and was lying on the floor near the first row. Fleming stood next to me, waiting for me to respond. I was stiff with fear. I couldn’t remember my cue.
After a pregnant pause, Fleming, who had been in the play for years and knew every word, muttered my line to me: “All the time. All the time.” Everyone in the small theater could hear.
I stammered out my words, sounding like Fleming’s echo.
We continued this way through our scene. I then ad-libbed my way through the rest of the play. By curtain, my clothes were completely soaked from perspiration.
After the show, members of the audience greeted me with kind words. It was a performance so bad that I was showered with sympathy–even by Barbara Vann. For the first time, I appreciated my parents’ old point of view about the wisdom of avoiding a career in acting.
When the Oscars are handed out this year, I won’t be wishing I was onstage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles in front of an international audience. I’ll be content to be nestled on my sofa. Silently, I’ll whisper a word of gratitude to my parents. Because of them, I still have my day job.