Three world famous actors started out long ago as NYC roommates struggling to make it. 3,222 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
New York City — 1950s
Sheldon Dumar, Bo Daggett and Bill Travers live together in the same New York City apartment building as close to roommates as three straight guys can get, all in their twenties and all focused on finding acting jobs.
Tonight, Sheldon is awakened by a pluk, pluk, pluk noise. What is that, the faucet? Geez, can’t a guy get any sleep around here?
“Shut up.” He covers his ears. “I said, shut up, dammit!” Groggily, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and stares unfocused into the grayish darkness. He has to laugh. How does that TV show go? There are eight million stories in the naked city… and now this is one of them: Bo’s shitty leaky kitchen faucet. Then Sheldon remembers all those lessons drummed into him using the Meisner Technique. Learn to improvise, Sheldon, like Meisner says. A phrase. Respond with intensity. Let your emotions flow. Sheldon glares at the faucet. “Are you pluking with me, faucet? Stop pluking with me!”
Sheldon dips his head and laughs. Always on. Always the actor. But he’s thankful Bo doesn’t kick him out of the apartment. Bo wouldn’t, would he? They’ve been pals since meeting at the Pasadena Playhouse, as unlikely a pair as Wally Cox and Marlon Brando.
Sheldon asked to crash at Bo’s pad while looking for a job in New York. Found one, too. Waiting tables. Don’t we all in this profession until the auditions pay off? Now Sheldon is looking for something off-Broadway or maybe a TV commercial. That would suffice until he gets on his feet financially and can afford his own pad. Until then, Bo says Sheldon can sleep on the kitchen floor. What a pal. Pluk, pluk pluk.
The first time Sheldon ever laid eyes on him, Bo snorted, “What kind of silly ass get-up is that you’re wearing? A corduroy vest with no shirt?” Sheldon just hunched his shoulders and wormed his way into Bo’s life. Sheldon is good at that. Hey, maybe if he auditions for The Naked City and lands a role, his fortunes will change?
A hulking shadow moves toward the kitchen doorway. “What the shit are you yelling about?” Bo asks, scratching his skimpy hair. “Jeez, you know what time it is, Dumar?”
Bo Daggett, part-time actor/part-time furniture mover, enters the kitchen looking for a chair to sit on. He yawns like a grumpy grizzly roused out of hibernation. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you do while you’re staying here,” he says, “but crissakes, no practicing lines at four in the fucking morning or you can high-tail it outta here.”
Sheldon flops back on the floor, crosses his legs like a cheerleader and points at the sink and complains to Bo. “Can’t sleep with that. Why don’t you get a plumber?”
“What, and lose the ambience?”
“Look at us, Bo. A couple of wise-ass wannabes living in squalor while out there Broadway beckons.”
Bo scrunches up his face and analyzes the timing of the drips. “But success is just around the corner, my friend. Someday you’ll be waiting tables in the Catskills at Grossinger’s and taking tips from flirty Jewesses.”
“I’ll be standing on a snowy sidewalk freezing my balls off looking for work.”
“No, Daggett, you got talent,” Sheldon tells Bo. “I see you as the next Brando. ‘Stella!’”
“God gave Brando a ton of talent. You think he has to fix leaky faucets at four in the goddamned morning?”
“I had this dream before the dripping woke me,” Sheldon relates. “It was so crazy. There was this woman, see, and she was dark-haired, sultry, and tempting me.”
Bo looks down at Sheldon. “Don’t tell me you’re horny because I’m naked under this bathrobe… Tell me more about this dark sultry woman. Who was she?”
“Ava Gardner, I think.”
“Ava Gardner? So you’re having second thoughts about screwing Ava Gardner? Man, are you a sorry mess.”
“But in the dream, she’s mature … And coming on to me … But she reminds me of a mom.”
Bo laughs. “Don’t knock mature women, sonny boy. They can teach us all some valuable lessons. If you happen to meet Ava Gardner, take her to the Copa but you better have her pick up the tab.”
“You think we’re ever gonna make it, Bo? Really make it as big-time actors?”
“Hell, no,” Bo grunts as he works on the leaky faucet. “But we gotta keep trying. We try … or we die.” Bo gives a final twist of the handle and the leak suddenly dries up.
Sheldon pats Bo on the shoulder but the bigger guy grouses, “Now get back to sleep, Dumar.”
“Sleep? Who can sleep? Say, Bo, let’s go up to the roof and play our drums.”
Minutes later, Bo is on the conga drum and Sheldon is on the bongos pretending they’re performing at the Copa.
Sheldon is thinking that Bo’s all right. Comes off like a bully. And granted, around the margins, he can be downright scary. But deep inside that flinty exterior beats a lovely heart. He cares about things. He’s an intellectual, too. Just don’t piss him off because he’s liable to punch a guy’s lights out.
Bo stops pounding the conga with his reddened hands. “What’s with the silly-ass grin?” he asks.
“I was just thinking about where we’ll end up. I worry a lot. What’s gonna happen to us in, say, ten years?”
“I already told you. You’ll be waiting tables—“
“—I’m serious, Daggett. You exude confidence but what do you have to show for it? You’re moving furniture. You gotta admit you can be your own worst enemy.”
Bo repeats the word, “confidence,” then shrugs. “I guess it was confidence that got the two of us voted The Least Likely To Succeed At The Pasadena Playhouse!” says Bo, doubling over with laughter.
Sheldon thinks those naysayers were right, their predictions of doom coming true.
“Got any auditions?” Bo asks.
The sun is emerging from its slumber. “I’ve got a walk-on in some Broadway production.”
“A walk-on? Well, well. You talk about Brando. At this rate, you’ll be bringing down the house.” Bo can make Sheldon feel even smaller than he is. “Hey, look out, Marlon! Sheldon Dumar is gunning for you!”
“Cut the crap.”
“But keep at it,” Bo says. “Maybe someday you’ll catch the eye of a director and be cast as Blanche DuBois!”
“Yeah, Sheldon Dumar in drag. That would go over big.”
“I’ll furnish the sequins!”
“Actually, Bo, you’d look pretty good in drag. A little rouge. A little mascara. A wig. Some extra-large hose.”
Bo displays a hairy leg. “I do have pretty nice gams.”
Bo says at last, “Let’s grab some grub with Travers.”
Bill Travers is staring into the mirror, disgusted with his appearance. What would Robert E. Lee think? Here he was — an ancestor living on a Virginia plantation, a distinguished gentleman of the Old South, a consummate military strategist and beribboned battlefield commander.
And his descendant Bill Travers is just… an actor.
Bill stands rigid at attention and gives himself a stern talking-to. “You’ve demeaned your heritage, sir. You should have remained in the Army. You should have led the charge up Pork Chop Hill. You should have become an officer and a gentleman. Instead, you’re squandering it to wear grease paint on stage.”
There’s a knock on Bill’s apartment door. It’s only Bo and Sheldon. What a couple of odd ducks. Sheldon enters first — he usually does — and heads directly to Bill’s kitchen pantry looking for something better than stale saltines to munch on. Typical thespian. Always hungry.
Bo grabs Bill by the shoulders and stares intently into his eyes. “Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“I hear you knocked ‘em dead in A View From The Bridge.”
Bill grins sheepishly. “Oh, that.”
“Oh that? Oh that, he says?” Bo turns to Sheldon, who is frustrated because there are only two crackers left. “Modesty is a word you’re unfamiliar with, Sheldon. It won’t do, Bill. If you want to be a great actor, you have to be like Sheldon and exude bravado!”
“Okay, okay. I’ll shed the modesty. Just you shed the bullshit. I get it. I did it all by myself. No help from anyone.” Then Bill tries to get Sheldon’s goat. “Hey, I really like the work this new kid Bob Morse is doing.”
“He’s okay, I guess,” Sheldon says glumly.
“I predict great things for him,” Bill continues. “I saw him in The Matchmaker and he was terrific.”
Sheldon struggles to swallow the last saltine. “He’s a song-and-dance man.”
Bill sees the hunger rising in both Sheldon’s and Bo’s eyes. “I suppose you want me to spring for grub again?”
“That’s my boy!” Bo grins, washing his hands.
Seated across the table at the corner diner, Bill watches Sheldon and Bo devour the scrambled eggs while Bill sips a cup of steaming java. “Sheldon, do your folks ever feed you?”
“Don’t mess with him, Bill,” Bo says, buttering a bagel. “The lad is in a melancholy frame of mind this morning. He’s tormented that he had to turn down Ava Gardner’s advances.”
“That right, Sheldon?” Bill asks. “You got a limp dick?”
Sheldon puts down his fork. “It was a dream, Bill.”
“A dream, eh? Well, they say dreams are a reflection of something deep down inside that’s eating at you.”
“Nothing’s eating at me, Bill — except, well, I’m worried.”
“About whether he’ll ever make it,” Bo interjects.
“Hell,” Bill chuckles, “you’re talking to a Macy’s clerk. I even sorted mail once at the post office. But do you see me complaining?”
Sheldon runs both hands through his hair in frustration. “It’s just being here in New York, seeing people everywhere you look climbing the ladder of success, well, it eats at me. I mean, look at us. Are we pathetic or what?”
Bill glances over at Bo, who raises his eyebrows.
“Sheldon, you’ve got a point,” Bill says. “We better take the next train to Hollywood.”
“Hollywood,” Sheldon groans and nearly slides off the blood red booth. “That’s even worse than here. In New York, the masses are rushing in every day, pushed into grids, slaving away, millions upon millions. But at least they’re all headed toward one goal — the goal of success. Hollywood is just a wasteland. Only the studios have any creativity or magic. Everywhere else is home to zombies hoping against hope year after year that their lives will change for the better and they’ll get that big break. And then they realize one day that it’s too late and never gonna happen.”
I point my cup of java toward Sheldon while speaking to Bo. “He’s got the blues bad.”
“But maybe he’s got a point,” Bo suggests. “Maybe we’re all chasing a neon mirage.”
Sheldon now looks about as sorry as a human being can. “Maybe we should make a pact. If we don’t make it in six months, then we share a thimbleful of arsenic.”
Again, Bill and Bo exchange glances.
Then Bill dips into a little Bard: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all—“
Bo picks it up, “—Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear—“
Now Sheldon bellows, “—Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
For a moment, the trio all sit silently as a waitress shouts out an order for a ham and cheese omelet. Then Bo asks, “What you got coming up, Bill?”
“Well, if Sheldon here doesn’t step in front of a bus, I believe he wants to become my assistant director on The Midnight Caller.”
“Who’s it by?”
“Fella named Horton Foote.”
“American Actors Studio, right?”
“Right. We’ll see how it goes,” Bill tells Bo. “I make it a point not to expect too much going in.”
Bo finishes off his bagel and says, “Bill, you know Sheldon is getting cranky sleeping on my kitchen floor. How about the two of you share digs?”
Bo is thinkking that nothing can beat a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon strips and buttered bagels. Gives a guy the strength to make it through the morning lifting pianos. He rolls a toothpick between his lips and chuckles listening to Sheldon prattle on about what a failure he thinks he is. And here’s Bill Travers with his folksy charm explaining why we have to suck it up, that this is a brutal business not for the faint of heart.
Bo thinks Sheldon is a bundle of talent who can do comedy, can do drama. Hell, Sheldon could stand on a street corner doing pantomime and have everyone mesmerized. He’s the all-American kid who studies acting like a tailor studies sewing. And he can do whatever the hell a director tosses his way — and do it with precision and grace. As for Bill, he doesn’t even have to speak. Just stand him up and his face does the talking. Look at those eyes. He has the look of Gen. Robert E. Lee gazing over a battlefield. That impenetrable stare will get him noticed one day.
As for Bo himself, his image arrives ten minutes before he enters a room. Everyone thinks they know him, but none do. He likes the finer things in life, but people think he’s a surly, angry, unrefined brawler. They don’t know Bo Daggett. They think he’s just another guy with an outsized ego chasing Brando. An ex-Marine from a broken home raised amid the steamy citrus orchards of San Bernardino. Another kid with a hair-trigger temper and a sad story, only in Bo’s case it has the element of farce: incarcerated at sixteen for stealing candy and soda pop.
Why does Bo want to act? He doesn’t know. But when he takes on a role, it’s all aboard. And then he becomes that person depicted on the page. It’s also an adventure. Like diving into treacherous depths and finding an old galleon and swimming from liquid room to liquid room looking for treasure and praying not to run out of oxygen.
The Marines made Bo who he is today. Tough. Killer instincts. The Mission is all that matters. Take the hill, even if it kills you. Setbacks are only temporary. At the Pasadena Playhouse, how many other actors would have survived flunking out of that storied program? Hell, you can’t get a lower grade than they gave Bo.
Brando is part of the reason that Bo is in New York. Probably the reason all three of them are here working their butts off at odd jobs looking for a break on the stage. Brando came from Omaha. His folks were drunks. Another dropout from acting school. But look at him now! Bo loved Viva Zapata with the script by Steinbeck.
“You take Bo, here,” Bill is saying to Sheldon, pointing a finger at Bo’s toothpick. “A stranger wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley—“
“—Hey, now,” Bo interjects.
“I’m just explaining to Sheldon that you have the soul of an artist inside you. And a fire in the belly.”
“Scrambled eggs, you mean.”
“Okay, scrambled eggs and a fire in the belly.” Bill pauses to look at both men. “You two sorry misfits have already achieved your mission for the day.”
“Which is?” a puzzled Sheldon asks.
“You managed to get me to spring for breakfast. I’m sure you’ll find someone just as gullible who’ll purchase lunch and then dinner for you two.”
“And cocktails,” Bo chimes in. “Don’t forget cocktails.”
“Stop complaining,” Sheldon tells Bill. “You’ve already had a phenomenal career even if you stopped today.”
“Phenomenal?” Bill crosses his arms. “In what way?”
“Picnic. The Crucible. Dark Of The Moon. Bus Stop. You’re always in demand.”
“You forget my best performance.”
“Clerking at Macy’s,” Bill says stoically.
A cute filly approaches the table and asks Sheldon, “Are you Mr. Dumar?”
She’s got her hair done in a popular cut and has deep red lips and dark eyes. Sheldon pretends to adjust an invisible tie and glances at Bill and Bo before replying, “Sheldon. You may call me Sheldon. I don’t believe we’ve had the opportunity?”
“Karen. Karen Folger. And, no, we’ve never met before.”
“Well, Karen,” Sheldon says, clearing his throat, “how did you know my name?”
“That man seated over there told me that you’re going to be famous.”
The three men all crane their heads to see Bob Morse waving to them from a nearby booth.
“I see,” Sheldon says, suddenly deflated. “Mr. Morse told you that?”
“Well, not in so many words,” Karen replies.
“I don’t understand…”
“Well, he’s a big fan and I mentioned that I had seen you perform at the Neighborhood Playhouse and that you were standing naked and trembling in your character and it got my attention. Like Alan Ginsberg with Howl.
“Love that poem,” Sheldon remarks. “The way it lacks structure.”
Sheldon leans over to Bo and whispers, “So why is she hanging out with Bob Morse?”
Bo points to his teeth. “He’s got a gap right here dead center. Dames go nuts over it like they do Elvis Presley’s pelvis.”
Karen continues heaping praise on Sheldon. “There’s just something about the way you engage in a new reality. It’s fresh. It’s honest.”
“I need her as my agent,” Sheldon jokes.
“I dig you. All my classmates really dig you. You’re true.”
“Are you saying I’m not?” Bill asks her.
“I’m not here to offend,” Karen replies. “But if you don’t speak truth, what good is conversation?”
“Look, Karen,” Bo says, “we’re having cocktails tonight at my pal Bill Travers’ apartment. Bring your girlfriends around midnight. Sheldon and I play the drums. We can engage in a new reality.”
Karen removes a pack of cigs from the front pocket of her black capri pants. “I’m saving my money for San Francisco this summer,” she says. “I have to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I can’t tell you what it will mean to me to just stand inside City Lights and experience consciousness.”
“You know, I sell capris just like that at Macy’s. Half off this week,” Bill quips, but Karen is reciting poetry under her breath as she takes long drags on her shrinking cig.
True, Karen may be on drugs. And she’s not shapely like Ava. But, hey, Sheldon Dumar has his first fan, as all three men realize. Sheldon’s mood has brightened. Ever the actor.
That night, Foote calls Bill and says he’s heard good things about the actor but Bill still has to prove himself. Bill considers the battle engaged and vows to win. He’s also agreeing with Bo that Sheldon should move in.
Bo is pounding the conga drum. Faster, harder, until his hands crack and bleed under the dark canopy of the universe and the towering skyscrapers. He’s swimming now from liquid room to liquid room and just making sure the oxygen doesn’t run out for the three of them.
This short story first posted here on May 28, 2016.