I witness an argument between James Caan and Don Adams, whose television series, Get Smart, is in its last season. The argument is about “What acting is.” Neither of them is drunk. Neither of them is a drinker. But together, they have enough testosterone to populate Indonesia. Adams finally settles the dispute by stalking into the next room and returning with the two Emmys he’s won. He raises them triumphantly over his head and says, “That’s acting!”
Thinking about celebrity and my own acting career, I hear Maxwell Smart’s voice insipidly declaring, “I missed it by that much, 99.” Everyone knew that Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) was leagues smarter than Max, even though she went along with him, which she had to do in order for the show to work. Her common sense, her mystery, her power were infinitely greater than the poor dummy she partnered with. Nobody ever said much about it, but it connects in a way to the oldest story on earth: women having profound power at their cores and men scrambling around to thwart that power.
It’s one of the great current show business fables, that women finally have power that can’t be curbed. At times, they have apparent authority, but it’s still, as always, under a routinely wary eye. (Julia learns to disguise the high she gets from the opiate of influence until Caesar sees through it and sends her into exile.) The soul is feminine and the feminine is the most intuitive, but the masculine wields the axe. Ask Sherry Lansing.
Don Adams is at my house one evening. I offer him an hors d’oeuvre. He frowns at me and says, “What’s your name?” I say, not entirely sure myself, “Rick Lenz. I’m a friend of your brother’s.” I don’t say I’ve been at your house about a dozen times. We’ve spoken maybe fifty times before this moment (actually, I never speak, he does — more or less at me). For a time, Jessica and I go to Adams’ house in Beverly Hills on Sundays. Lots of people are there: Peter Falk, Burt Lancaster — a glut of stars or would-be stars and killer comedians. We play tennis, swim, then watch a movie, usually followed by a couple of episodes of Get Smart or outtakes with Adams and other funny men. (Lancaster and Falk have disappeared by now.)
In my first Hollywood years, I don’t learn a single thing from these and similar soirees about how I’m expected to behave. It makes me uneasy, and as I continue to be clueless about how to be — from these affairs, and at these affairs — how to work the system and other such fundamental-seeming show business skills, I begin to get depressed about it.
Then I have a tiny awakening. My accidental technique is at least giving me some longevity. Not knowing anything is not a stumbling block in Hollywood. When you don’t know anything, everybody loves to have you around so they can tell you what they know. Also, you get a chance, once you learn to relax into it a little, to study the people who can work the system, and in a backdoor way you come to learn basic survival techniques.
A couple of years later, before he becomes a star, Richard Dreyfuss does a staged reading of a play I’ve written. His energy is like one of the comedians at Don Adams’ parties. It could blow you out of the room. He feels like a comic, touches a similar chord, only with a focus and commitment unlike any I’ve ever seen.
My killer agent, John Rival, asks me my opinion of him. Apparently Dreyfuss has come to him looking for new representation. (It’s after American Graffiti, but before Jaws.) It doesn’t happen. Killer agent, who’s happy to have me as a client — for the moment — does not recognize killer actor for what he is. Dreyfuss would have earned him a lot of money.
You’d think killers would recognize each other. But Dreyfuss, who has a passion for his work, which is about people, is different from the other killer, John Rival, and his passion, which is plainly about killing.
I look down at the marshmallow clouds below me — not sure where I’ve flown from and what I’m flying back to — and wonder how you make sure, if you have the compulsion to be a killer, you end up being the right kind, the kind you can live with.
Of course, if all you want to do is kill, such fine distinctions won’t trouble you in the first place. I will learn, as I travel the path I’ve chosen, that killing is a pivotal part of the game. The late manager-producer, Bernie Brillstein, said, “You’re nobody in Hollywood unless somebody wants you dead.” The only good news in this is that, like sharks, the killers don’t really care about killing you; in the end, they simply want to eat you. You can’t take a thing like that personally.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish