A comedian who says what Hollywood doesn’t want to hear tries to right his wrongs. 2,712 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I’m not sure how this works. This was someone else’s idea. Actually, a lot of people’s. My agent, my shrink, two old friends, two guys who know and two ex-wives. The only one who said not to do it was my new girlfriend, which is why she is my new girlfriend. I don’t have a computer. Well, I do, but it’s dial-up. I don’t have email anymore. I would have typed it on my computer, but my printer is busted. Or needs a new ink cartridge. So, I am dictating this into a tape recorder and giving it to one of my daughters, who said she would type it up and email it to some new website where, ideally, they would post it and then other places might pick it up and then everyone would eventually know everything and then… then what?
So, if you’re reading this now, it made it. Which is the difference between what this is and me. I never made it.
There’s a great joke. It’s not mine. I don’t know whose it is, but the fact I’m not saying it is mine is an incredible departure for me. Here’s the joke: Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven. First guy comes up. Saint Peter says, “What did you do on Earth?” Guy says, “I was a doctor. I made $500,000 a year, but I put in at least one day a week at the free clinic. I also went to Africa twice and performed medicine in destitute villages. My wife and I were married for 35 years, we had three beautiful children, and I had seven grandkids.” Saint Peter says, “Okay, you can go in.” Second guy comes up to the gate. Saint Peter says, “What did you do on Earth?” Second guy says, “I was a lawyer. I grew up poor. Paid my way through law school, started with a big firm, made it to partner. I was earning at least $1 million a year, but three years ago, I left and started my own firm, which did exclusively pro-bono work. I was married 25 years. My wife couldn’t have children, so we adopted two girls, and they both just graduated from law school and are taking over my business.” Saint Peter says, “Okay, you can go in.” Third guy comes up to the gate. Saint Peter says, “What did you do on Earth?” The guy says, “Not much. I never made more than $7,500 a year. I was married and divorced three times. I have five children, two that I’ve never seen. And I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict.” And Saint Peter says, “What have I seen you in?”
I’m not dying, unless you heard something. I’m not sick. The fact that my health is as good as it is may be one of life’s great jokes. As great as the Saint Peter joke, probably not. As great as the bit I came up with in 1994 about the realtor showing John Wayne Gacy’s house (“The basement is 20×30 and sleeps 26…”)? Well, comedy is subjective. A lot of comics love that bit. I heard Robin Williams laugh one night in the back of the room when I did it at the Holy City Zoo. So, for all I know, he lifted it and it died with him.
If I sound bitter, that’s what you’re hearing. I am not bitter. I am just relentlessly realistic.
Ask anybody who knows about Robin. He was a beautiful, sweet man and a monster talent, but he liked to, as we say, incorporate other people’s material into his own stream of consciousness. And he was aware of it. Watch the last line of Good Will Hunting, which he ad-libbed, and get back to me. Like I said, I’m just being realistic. That’s why I am writing this. I need to do a little house cleaning with some people in the business, some big shots, okay one big shot, so I can continue with my alleged career.
This started with my agent. My new agent. My sixth new agent. That number should be greater except from late 2001-2012, I didn’t have an agent. I represented myself. I thought, “Why should I give 10 percent of a gig I ultimately got to some scumbag when I’m already a scumbag?”
My last agent, you know him, Mel from the Morris office, let me go in the fall of 2001. The third week of September. I’d moved to New York six months before because there was more work in the clubs back East. I’m a comic. I’m a comic 35 years. I’m an actor, too. If you need an actor. I’m a writer, too. But don’t put me in a room with other writers. Don’t put me in a room with a bunch of fucking two-year-olds from the Ivy League Chowder Society who ask me where I do my “little routines.” Or if I know what a “blow” is. I know what a blow is. It’s how you got into the fucking Ivy League.
Tommy, you promised yourself you wouldn’t do this. You promised you wouldn’t sound bitter.
That’s right. I’m a 60-year-old man who still goes by Tommy.
Mel sends me up to HBO to read for a part on The Sopranos. The show had been on for three years and was, I don’t have to tell you, the biggest thing on television. I was going to read for the part of one of the guys in Tony’s big poker game, and if David Chase liked me, they would find a way for me to come back. That’s what Mel said. So, I go in. It’s four people in the room. And it’s September 21, or 10 days after the towers had come down. I walk in and David Chase recognizes me. He says, “Did I see you at the Improv at the Riv in Las Vegas maybe 10 years ago?” I said, “Sure, I used to play there all the time. Steve Scharippa was the doorman.” He says, “That’s right. But that’s not where I met Steve.” I say, “Well, tell me where you met him and I’ll go there.” That gets a big laugh. Then David Chase says, “How long have you been in New York?” And I should have said “Six months.” But I was so pleased with the last exchange, I kept talking. I said, “Six months. I just bought an apartment downtown, and now my view is fucking ruined.”
I think they let me read the sides. Yeah, they did. I remember somebody saying, “We just wanted to meet you.” When I got back to my apartment, there was a message from Mel. I saved it for months until I moved back here. I still remember it. “Tommy, I know I represent you, but when you go out, you represent me. And when you toss off a line like that in an audition while they’re still looking for bodies at Ground Zero, it might as well be me saying it. And I wouldn’t say something that heartless. So, this is goodbye. Good luck. Get yourself a new agent. Or get a new shrink.”
So, I don’t have an agent for 10 years. But I get by. I always have. And if anyone wants me, they find me. That’s the thing about show business. When they want you, they find you, and when they don’t want you, you don’t hear anything. It’s very egalitarian. Three years ago (when you could still use dial-up), I get an email from this kid. Denard Sharp. All it says is, “Chris Rock says you have a great Redd Foxx story. Can I hear it?” And he leaves his number. I call him and do the story. He loves it. He says he’s with UTA and can he send me up if he sees anything for me. I say absolutely, and then I tell him the David Chase story. Long pause. He says, “Well, if you have to read for David Chase, we’ll need to smooth that out.” Fine.
And that was the last time I heard from Denard Sharp until last week.
(I know you want the Redd Foxx story. Here it is. Rick Corso and I are working at the Trop in Las Vegas. I want to say it’s 1989. And we hear Redd Foxx is at the Sahara with Slappy White opening for him. Well, I had worked with Slappy a couple of times and we got along great. So, we go see Slappy, who’s very strong, and Redd, who’s Redd, and then we go backstage after the show. We’re sitting in Redd’s dressing room, and as he’s changing, he says, “I’m gonna open a club here in Vegas, and it’s gonna be just for comics. Just for comics. It’s gonna have a big stage, a really good sound system, and a little room in the back where you can get your dick sucked and have a sandwich….”)
Now it’s last week, and Denard Sharp calls me. He’s with CAA now. I want to say, “Great. What’s it like eating your own?” but I’m pretty sure he’s black and the chance he would take a cannibal reference wrong is, we’ll say, high. So, I just say congratulations. He says, “I know you don’t mean that, but thanks.” He wants to send me up to read for “Sully,” about the guy who landed the plane in the Hudson. I say, “Let me guess. The bitchy flight attendant?” He kind of laughs and then I say, “I’m gonna need a little room in the back…” and then he really laughs. He has a much bigger laugh than I remember. I guess that’s one of the things they really work on with you at CAA.
Denard Sharp tells me he looked at the breakdowns, and called the casting director at Warners and the guy said Clint was interested in people he hadn’t seen. I say, “Clint who?” and he does the big CAA laugh. “Seriously, Clint Eastwood?” And Denard Sharp gives me a “fuck yeah!”
I chuckle a little, like heh heh heh. “Denard,” I say, “we got a little problem. We got another David Chase situation. Something that needs to be smoothed out.” Nothing. I ask him if he wants to hear the story. Hello? Hello?
I’m listening. That’s what I get. I’m listening. So, I tell him.
This is now 27 or 28 years ago. I can’t even remember who I was with then. I’m pretty sure it was one of those places that doesn’t exist anymore. Like Spotlight Entertaiment. Or Footlights Unlimited. Or KnowTalent Inc. I’m sent up for a part in Bird, the Charlie Parker movie. Eastwood is directing. The part is Charlie Parker’s manager. They must have looked at every stooge in LA, but I get it. It’s really one scene, which is perfect for someone like me. I think I auditioned six times. And this is smart. I told the girl who would call me to give me a call time an hour earlier than they really wanted me. And she did. So, I was never late. I don’t know why I thought to do that, but I never did it again. And I never got another part.
I come in for my first day of shooting on Bird. I was a little late. A little. I forgot to do that thing with having them tell me to come an hour earlier. And this is before cellphones or sending cars, so no one knew how to badger anybody into showing up. A couple of people very kindly took me aside and explained that Clint is a great guy, but he is no-nonsense. Everyone does their homework. Every day is an eight-hour day. Every film finishes shooting on time and under budget. No-nonsense. That’s the word they all used.
So, the schedule is etched in stone. It’s like NASA. Luckily, I catch a break that day because someone kicked out a plug. By the time they get to my scene, I’m ready. We’re going to rehearse it once, film the rehearsal, and then here we go. No-nonsense. I bet you’re waiting for me to say I didn’t know my lines. That this was where things went sideways. Sorry. I was all over that. Knew them cold.
The rehearsal goes great. It’s just me and some haircut playing the guy who owns the Blue Note. There’s not much blocking. Two pages of dialogue. And I feel good. Not a stumble. I know it’s not perfect, but it feels close. Come on. This is after six auditions with these sides, then two weeks of running lines with my cat.
I hear “cut!” Then Clint walks over to me, smiles, and whispers, “That was great, Tommy. But if you could, this time, try it a little less angry.”
And I don’t know. I guess it was because I felt like everyone was looking at me, waiting for a response. Maybe it was the coke. I threw my hands up, laughed and said, “I’m too angry? This, from a guy who in every movie walks into town and kills everybody….”
And Clint, God bless him, he laughed. And everybody laughed, and I figured it was just one of those moments. Then somebody kicked out another plug and the assistant director, pretty girl, came over and said, “We’re done with you for today.” No, she said it like this, “We’re done with you for….today.”
So, that’s the story. When I finished, Denard Sharp was quiet for a while. “Eight million Jew comics,” he finally said, “I get the one motherfucker who doesn’t want anyone’s approval.” I laughed, and I really wanted to tell him about the Star of David tattoo I have on my shoulder that says NEVER AGAIN. Nick DiPaolo saw it years ago when we were at a pool in Florida and said, “What? Did a club owner give that to you after you headlined?” But I don’t. I can always tell him that story another time. This is another thing I rarely consider. That there is always another time, perhaps even a better time, to tell a story.
We agree, well, Denard strongly suggests and I say okay, that I need to write an apology and post it on this new site. And my shrink, two old friends, two guys who know and two ex-wives agree. And it may not, and probably won’t, smooth things out. But it would be out there. It took me two hours to write longhand, which is the longest I’ve worked on a piece of material in 15 years. Which reminds me of something I said to a bunch of guys 20 years ago in the parking lot at the Comedy Store. There was an item in the paper that day about some audience member suing The Tonight Show because he suffered an eye injury when he was hit by a t-shirt shot from a t-shirt cannon. I said, “On the bright side, it’s the first time since Johnny left someone hasn’t seen a piece of material coming from a mile away…”
I’m not sure if we need to use any of this.
Here’s the apology I came up with. See how this sounds.
Dear Mr. Eastwood,
I am supposed to read for a role in your next project, but I think it’s important I address something first. Many years ago, I caused a thoroughly avoidable delay on your film Bird by my regretful and disrespectful behavior. I just want you to know that I still feel bad about that incident and no longer behave that way. You and your staff did not deserve that. Although I’m sure it appeared otherwise, my actions did not and do not reflect the immense respect I have for you or your work. Of course, I would appreciate the opportunity to be considered again for one of your films. If not, believe me, I understand. At the very least, I am grateful for this chance to apologize publicly for what happened so long ago.
You know what I just realized? In order to type this, my daughter had to have listened to everything I’ve said on this tape. So, I have to start another apology tape. I’m sorry, Janey. Uh, I mean Abby.
This short story first posted here on August 3, 2015.