A wannabe comedian meets a has-been talent agent. 2,923 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
I first met Roy Golden while I was driving for the Bel Air Continental Livery Service. Roy was a routine airport pickup. That was 70% of the gig. Dusk was just starting to fall on LAX as I pulled into Arrivals and parked. I opened the dash and fumbled around for a Sharpie; I had thrown a paperback copy of Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom in there for a little light studying, in case it would be a slow night. I grabbed a slice of cardboard from under the passenger seat and wrote down the name: G O L D E N. Then I got out and popped the trunk, grabbed my hat, and walked down to the Baggage Claim exit with the dopey little cardboard square and held it up like an Olympics judge as I watched humanity pass me by.
Cardboard in hand, I adjusted my driver’s hat and posture in search of a convincing stance, but I knew I looked ridiculous. Anyway, what difference did it make? The limo job was supposedly just supplementary; in six weeks I’d be graduating UCLA with a useless B.A. in Psych. Then I’d really be in trouble because I had no real plans of any kind. Everywhere looked like the outside. From my vantage point at LAX Arrivals, the rushing travelers cut around me like a stampede. Still, I couldn’t be so self-righteous, because I harbored a secret: I was an addict. But I wasn’t addicted to any of the usual things, that would have been too easy.
Sometimes, on my nights off, I’d sneak out to amateur hours around town and do celebrity voice impressions.
Could there be a more stupid, more harmless, thing to lie about? It wasn’t even like I was that good at it: I bombed ritually. I had the voices down pat, but I didn’t have the vibe. Something was missing — what, I don’t know — yet the more I tried, the more I sucked. “Amateur” was written all over my face.
But if it sounds ridiculous, it wasn’t innocent. It was a full-blown compulsion. The dream refused to die and I was panicking with every day that graduation approached, looking for a release from the jail sentence of adult life some way, any way. My impersonation of Mickey Mouse as Rabbi Menachem Mouse (high squeal, “The Lord is One!”)? My grandfather would not have found funny, and so the whole enterprise became my dirty little secret. I would have sooner told him that I flashed old ladies in the park.
Nobody talks about the addiction of being onstage, but it’s a drug, hard and pure. It rocks your world and you’ve never known a hangover until you’ve known a hangover from being cheered. But for me, it was also the addiction to sneaking. How I machinated to keep these excursions from my grandpa, my neighbors, my friends. Peripheral neighborhoods, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, writing the “set list” on the back of some used envelope that I’d have to throw away at the gas station on the way home. And then the comedown, slinking In with a delicious mixture of guilt, defiance, and self-pity. Talk about gettin’ high. Yes, I was a Secret Wannabe, but how do you get-to-be if you don’t start out as a wannabe?
At 22, I was the youngest driver on the limo fleet, but in my heart, I was ancient. I had been a has-been or maybe a never-was. My miniscule stint as a kiddie TV actor had been too short to even mention, too dizzying to forget. I was like a bird that had accidentally flown into someone’s home, scrambled around the living room for a wild minute, then got batted out the window with a broom.
At 11, I was cast as one of The Whiz Kid Superstarz to chase the dancing Silver Marshmallow Moosh-Moosh Man over the grassy knoll. We shot at the ABC lot in east Hollywood, starry-eyed and way excited. In the opening credits, six of us kids danced through the set, a kind of psychedelic space-age jungle with purple trees and a big bubbling lime-colored lake. The theme was racial harmony: a black boy, a brunette girl with blue eyes, a Korean boy, a Mexican-American girl, a blonde girl with pigtails, and me, the token Semite. On the network’s suggestion, I changed my name from the Israeli Tomer Elkaim (Toe-mare El-kah-yeem) to legally become Tommy Ellis.
My “normal” life was over. The agents enrolled me in the studio’s School for Young Professionals and I lunched like a prince with the other kids in the studio cafeteria, tables away from the adult stars, the giants. Just passing the gates every morning was like being one of the kids in Willie Wonka. We were The Actually Chosen. Soon, the sun would spin a diamond light, the clapboards would smack—“aaaand ACTION!”—and I would yield to the cheers of the invisible kiddie dream crowd.
Soon, so soon.
We were cancelled after the first season.
LAX was mobbed. My arms were starting to ache. A group of teenagers back from a ski trip burst out laughing as they passed. That’s when I noticed my cardboard sign was upside down; I turned it around and sighed deep. Golden stepped out from the traveling throngs with no luggage, pointed at the card and said, “That’s me, let’s go.” Night had fallen and a gentle Santa Ana was blowing through the causeway as we walked out to the stretch.
“Where to, sir?” I said, opening the door for him.
“Topanga. Take PCH,” he said, slipping into the back. I grabbed the smooth black leather wheel. As I pulled out of LAX, the electronic privacy panel slid closed. Mission Get-It-Over-With.
But we had hardly been on the mighty 405 for two minutes when my rider started shouting at somebody on the cellphone. “What do you mean you’re not going to be there? You call this representation? You’re an insult. Yeah? Go to hell, you can’t fire me. I’m firing YOU!”
At the same time, some crazy geek in an orange Hyundai four-wheeler started going bonkers, honking and flipping us off, bleeding into my lane. I may have accidentally cut the Hyundai off or something, but you never know. I honked back hard, and the driver’s eyes lit up. I honked again for him to move and he started weaving even wilder, reaching over to his glove compartment with one hand. I wasn’t sure if he was going to pull out a camera or a gun.
“Oh fuck this,” I mumbled. Tonight was not my night to die.
I cut fast and slammed on the gas, zoomed ahead, looping onto the 10 West. The geek was still honking at us as he receded into a pissed off, faraway dot. I shot down the 10, my heart still pounding like hell. Then there was silence.
The privacy panel slid open.
“You shmuck, you almost got us killed!!” my rider said.
It was the first time I really noticed Golden, glaring at me like that in the rearview, and that was strange because he was a big man with big features, hard not to notice. What a face on this guy! A regular Jewish Alexander Graham Bell with a giant nose straight out of Nazi cartoonery and a bald chrome dome that threatened to head-butt at any second. But it was the groomed beard that must have thrown me.
“Are you out of your mind, asshole?”
“Is this your way of saying ‘Thank you for saving my life?’” I answered to the rearview, still catching my breath.
“Suicidal smartass,” he grumbled.
We bled into the last wave of commuter traffic. I should have told Groombeard to get the hell out of my car, but it was the last job of the day and I did not want a complaint at the dispatch. I got my chaperone groove on, diplomatic and deferential. “With all due respect, sir,” I said, “our assailant looked kinda wimpy.”
The old man fought a smile. “You look pretty wimpy yourself.”
I put on my British butler voice — Edward Everett Horton meets Sir Alec Guinness. “Sir, we aim to transport you to your destination in a most timely and elegant fashion.”
Golden cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t say.”
Then I did a little Adolph Menjou as the rude French waiter. “You must to be ze comfortable, or we are not ze happy.”
Now he smiled for real, finally. “Good to know.”
I ran classic late model Brando: “We take you for a long ride, but we don’t take for a ride, if you know what I mean.”
“Not bad,” he said. “Whatta you, an actor?”
“Me? I’m a student.”
“Hmmm,” he said, watching me intently through the rearview. Then he busted out with his own full-on fake British accent and said, “Well it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, young lad.” And then he closed the privacy panel again. Discussion over.
But about five minutes down the freeway, the privacy panel slid back open. In the rearview I noticed a distinct change — Golden’s eyes had the terrible glint of someone who thinks they just came up with a great idea.
“Driver. Hey, driver. I have a proposition for you. I need a lawyer tonight, a stand-in.”
“You want me to help you find a lawyer?” I said.
“No, no, no. I want you to be a lawyer. To act like a lawyer. A young hotshot lawyer.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand.”
He leaned forward and grabbed a champagne glass, filled it with Perrier in the shimmering light. “Look, I’m going to see an old friend tonight and I think he’s gonna try and get me involved in some kind of a business deal. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, you understand? So I need a showbiz lawyer. Not a real showbiz lawyer. Someone to help me back out. You can handle that.”
I burst out laughing. “I don’t know how to act like a lawyer, Mr. Golden.”
“Bullshit. Everybody knows how to act like a lawyer. Repeat after me. ‘We are interested but Roy cannot sign at this time.’ Go ahead. Say it.”
I hesitated, cleared my throat. I put on a touch of Robert Duvall, just a drop. Golden pulled a ribbed silver flask from his loose cashmere coat and poured a liquid of clear bronze into the glass of soda water. “You’ll be paid. Two hundred extra bucks on top of the tip. You’ll be great.” In the rearview, Golden shot me a look of utter seriousness, pure gravity. “Besides, this friend of mine, he’s famous. Don’t you wanna meet some famous people?”
I pulled up to a mammoth estate nestled deep in the Topanga woods, a log cabin on steroids with rustic path framed in groomed topiary.
“We’re not gonna do something illegal in there are we?”
“Relax! Nothing like that, I wanna give you a little background first. Have you ever heard of The Guru? He’s a very important putz. We went to Lincoln High together in Brighton Beach ten million years ago. We were friends. Correction, I was his only friend. Benny was a stuttering prick who couldn’t complete a sentence let alone get laid.”
I looked at the mansion, wooden and mighty in my rearview, wondering if there was still time to back out. I said, “Well, he seems to have done alright for himself.”
Golden leaned in conspiratorially, spoke over the sound of forest crickets. “Okay, let’s go. Take off the hat and that corny tie. And remember: you’re a showbiz lawyer.”
“Mr. Golden, I’m not sure this is such a smart idea.”
“It’s the smartest idea I’ve had all week.” He took one last swig direct from the silver flask. “What’s the difference between a showbiz lawyer and a sperm cell?” Golden stroked his beard and put the flask back in his coat. “A sperm cell has a one-in-one-million chance of becoming a human being.”
We skipped the front door. Golden insisted that we walk around the side, through the unlit path, past yellow-jackets buzzing in the nighttime peach blossoms. I tried to walk with the gait of a showbiz lawyer, whatever the hell that is. We turned a corner onto a giant wooden back porch where some people were yakking away in a big bubbling Jacuzzi, lit from the inside.
Golden knelt down to poke his fingers in the bubbling water and greet everybody. He said, “This is Tom, my lawyer. My wunderkind.” They barely noticed me.
“Listen, everybody,” the Guru said, and the party quieted down. “Now that Roy’s here, I want to let you all know why I called you up to the cabin. It’s bad news and good news. First the bad. And it is bad.” There was an uncomfortable pause in which the Guru closed his eyes, nodded to himself, and reopened them. “I’ve been diagnosed with stage three terminal stomach cancer.”
This gear-shifted the atmosphere radically. There were gasps and murmurs and then nothing but the sound of the water jets.
“Quiet, please! I’m 68. You didn’t think I was going to live forever, did you? Now, how about the good news, there ought to be some good news, right? Well, I have constructed a special fund for my loved ones so all of you can participate in my transition. I have so many freaking insurance policies that I got to thinking, what if I conglomerated them? Even the insurance companies themselves do this shit. But they don’t know my little diagnosis, that’s the catch. I’m calculating returns that will be astronomical. But that’s not what’s important: it’s the thought that counts. And this is my gift to you. My legacy.”
Now the Guru smiled beatifically. There were more mumbles and moans and somebody was weeping in staccato. Golden pinched his red eyes too, but I couldn’t tell if he was sweating or crying. Then he ran his hands over his wet face and frowned and blurted out, “You’re my oldest friend. I don’t want to lose you, you nut.”
Then the jets stopped. And that’s when I remembered I was on the job — the other job, the showbiz lawyer job.
“Roy,” I said, shifting uncomfortably, “we’ll have to go over some of the details before—“
“Tom, we’re okay with this,” Golden interrupted.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and said, “Just a formality, I just need to see the contract and —” Now everyone was staring right at me, staring naked and dripping in the rising steam and Malibu lights like wet ghosts. Then the jets started again.
Backed into a corner, I turned quickly to Golden and then the people and I had to think quick and went for the first voice I could think of: Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I said, “With all due respect, I prefer that my client vote in favor of miracles.”
The party people burst out laughing, this time for me, somebody even cheered “right on”, and the Guru beamed and put his wet hands on my face and said, “Jimmy Stewart! Roy, where did you find this kid? A lawyer with attitude!.”
I exchanged a glance with big fat Golden, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing. We left soon after.
“Hey, Jimmy Stewart!” Golden howled as we cruised down Topanga toward the lights that pepper the coastline. “You were amazing. You’re a natural-born phony!”
We were dressed but waterlogged, still wet behind the ears in the adjustable AC. I put on my driver’s hat and fixed my tie as I drove. “I thought you wanted me to keep you from signing,” I said.
“I wanted you to try, just in case! To an outstanding showbiz lawyer." He took a slug straight from the flask. “You delivered. You impressed them. And you made them laugh.” His voice was slow and sonorous, like the low cadence of war drums. “Tell you what. Why don’t you work for me? Full-time. Be my gofer. I’ll pay you twice what you’re making, teach you the ropes.”
I wasn’t sure which ropes he was talking about. “I’m in school,” I said. “UCLA.”
“Waste of time,” Golden said. “I am school.”
There was one more question I had to ask before calling it a night and God knows I earned it. “What line of work are you in, exactly, Mr. Golden?”
Golden played with his flask. “I’m what’s called a tummeler, do you know what that is? It means ‘stirrer’ in Yiddish, like a wooden soup spoon. I tummel, I derive profits from mischief.”
I drove him back to Bel Air on the cusp of dawn. We wisecracked all the way to 616 North Schuyler Road, where I pulled into the long looping driveway of a big white castle, parked, and opened the door for him. He stretched out and stood up ceremoniously — the noble giant — and said, “You’re a funny motherfucker, kid,” then he slipped me a wad of bills.
I said, “Thank you, Mr. Golden.”
Naturally, I thought I’d never see him again. But here I was weeks later and I drove straight to 616 North Schuyler Road. I tapped three times on the lion-head knocker. Roy Golden, the talent agent, came to the door in a white bathrobe with the letters RG monogrammed in gold over the heart, scratching his beard and looking me over with sleepy curiosity.
I said, “Mr. Golden, are you still looking for a gofer?”