“You are the last guy I would pick to be a movie star.”
That’s what an agent said to me when I was sixteen.
He was a friend of my godfather, Michael Bell. You may not have heard of Michael as an actor, but you have definitely heard his voice. He is one of the preeminent voice-over specialists. In the ’70s, he would come from Hollywood to visit my family’s house in Long Island, New York, bringing with him rented sports cars, beautiful girlfriends, and plenty of money in his pocket. When people would ask me what I wanted to be, I would look at Michael and his life and say, “Whatever he does!” He was a star to me. This guy was an inspiration to a kid from Massapequa.
In 1975, Michael made an appointment for me to visit his agent’s New York office. I flew through Penn Station and ran twenty blocks to the skyscraper where I assumed my dreams would come true. I met two female agents and one older vice president of the agency. They were complimentary about my head shots, and I explained a bit about the theater experience I had in Long Island. Then, as if my dog had died, the VP asked the ladies to leave so he could speak to me alone. This started to give me the creeps. My first creep-out in show business, with more coming.
“I’m going to give you a gift,” he said, “something that I would give my own son.”
This is going to be good! I thought to myself.
Instead he said, “Get out of the business, get out of this office, and become something else. Forget being an actor. You don’t have the look, you don’t have the talent, and your name is ridiculous. I’m telling you this for your own good. This is a tough, competitive business that you have no place in. Take my advice, walk out these doors, no, run out these doors to Penn Station, get on the train back to Massapequa. You are the last guy I would ever pick to be a movie star.”
I swear I didn’t hear a thing he said.
* * *
On June 24, 1976, I graduated Plainedge High School, and already knew what I wanted to do. I had a girlfriend, of whom I was very fond, and could have stayed in the New York area, gone to college, and had a calm, normal life. But I had other things in mind.
Two days later I was on a plane to Los Angeles. I had three hundred dollars in my pocket, salami from my mother, and my father’s briefcase. Michael met me at the gate. We walked outside and Los Angeles hit me. The sunshine, the air, the energy.
We got to Michael’s car, a green BMW, and drove to his house. All the way we couldn’t shut up. It was all new to me, and I asked about each and every thing I saw. Michael is a chatterbox, too, and couldn’t help but give me the 411.
“That’s where James Dean auditioned for Rebel, that’s Beverly Hills, that way is Malibu where the stars all have beach houses, and over there, along those mountains, is Mulholland Drive, where I live. Oh, and so does Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and Warren Beatty.”
We took the 405 freeway and got off on the Mulholland exit. After passing mansion after mansion overlooking the cliffs, we got to his place. He pointed across the street to Ernest Borgnine’s house.
“McHale’s Navy? That guy?”
“Yep, but we in the acting business like to refer to him as the Academy Award winner for Best Actor for Marty.”
We drove down Michael’s driveway, and there it was. A mansion overlooking the San Fernando Valley. We walked along a path that seemed right out of a movie. For that matter, so did everything I saw from then on.
I had two weeks to try and become a working actor. After that, I would be going to Albany University to study and enter the real world. But who knows, two weeks was a long time and anything could happen.
At dinner that night Michael suggested I take his extra car, a 1974 Pacer, and drive around Hollywood, look at the studios, and read Variety. “Just don’t do anything dangerous or your parents will kill me.”
The next morning I was up early to start my career. I bought Variety, which was exciting in itself. I drove past Warner Bros. in Burbank, then NBC. I took off to see Universal, then Twentieth Century-Fox, MGM in Culver City, and then the grande dame of them all, Paramount. That famous Bronson Gate made immortal in Sunset Boulevard. I could see in my mind William Holden and Gloria Swanson standing there, beckoning me in. And I noticed the guard smiling and waving people through. The card-punching clock for employees, and beyond the gates the famous Nickodell Restaurant where it looked as if starlet after starlet was coming in and out. My stomach even now has knots in it, remembering my excitement. The feeling of freedom, of possibilities! I drove home and dreamed of driving onto that lot.
That night I told Michael what I did, and he said, “You have thirteen days left.” He would bring me to his agents, Cunningham in Los Angeles, and introduce me. “You never know what can happen.”
The next day we went to the agency and he introduced me to Vic Sutton, Rita Vennari, and Marcia Hurwitz, three agents there that agreed to “send me out” if something came up. Send me out! That was as good as being told I won the lottery. After that, I called them every day, twice a day. I was polite, but persistent. I knew I had a short amount of time to make a dent in Hollywood.
* * *
Meanwhile, I learned how to sneak on the Paramount lot. That feat would be impossible now, with the advent of sophisticated security. Even then it wasn’t easy, but it was possible. That is one of the lessons that Hollywood taught me. Dreams aren’t easy but they are possible.
In those days, there was one guard at each gate. For two days, I stood outside watching the people go in and out. On the right side of the gate was a time clock. Most of the Paramount employees had to take their cards out of a rack, punch in the time they arrived, and then walk on the lot. They would always finish the routine with a wave to the guard and a “Hi, Sam.”
I mustered up my nerve. I had prepared by wearing my only sport coat, a corduroy number that I thought made me look older. I carried my father’s briefcase and walked across Melrose Avenue with a handful of “coworkers.”
I watched the guard let in a car and waited my turn to punch my card. Of course I didn’t have one, but I hadn’t thought of that! When my turn came I saw a group of blanks, slipped one in the slot, and heard the punch. I turned to Sam and waved, he waved back, and I was in.
I was in! I was on the Paramount lot! To the left were the studios for Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Little House on the Prairie. To the right were the executive offices and the movie sound stages. Everywhere I looked was opportunity, excitement, and my dreams coming true.
On that first day it felt like I walked a hundred miles on the ten-acre lot, and perhaps I did. What blew me away was the lot’s self-sufficiency. Since then I’ve seen it on all movie studio lots. They have their own furniture store, which is the prop house; a clothing store, the wardrobe department; their own fire station, hospital, and construction shop. Whatever you need, it’s there. It’s all perfectly private, with its own rules, laws, and culture. That’s what makes shooting on a lot so exciting. The real world’s boundaries are gone, and you can make your own universe. Which I suppose is why artists thrive behind those gates and can dream up whatever they want. I think it was John Ford who called the business “a dreamcatcher.”
I left after nightfall and drove home knowing that I had accomplished something special. I told Michael what I had done and he laughed and encouraged me to keep going. “Do whatever it takes, kid. You’ve got to have chutzpah!”
The next day, I parked my Pacer off of Melrose, put on my jacket, grabbed my briefcase (that had nothing but two Varietys in it), and gathered my courage. I waited for a few of my “fellow employees” to walk across the street and I followed. Lo and behold there was my card, no name but exactly where I had put it the day before. This time I mimicked one of the other workers and read a Variety while walking in and giving a wave to the guard.
This time he waved back, but also waved me over. I gave a look of amazement and impatience. I looked at my watch and thought I’m going to be late. Late for what, I didn’t know. But I knew I had to give the appearance that I belonged.
“Hey, I’ve never seen you before,” the guard said. “Who are you? Where do you work?”
“Um, um,” I stammered. I’d been caught and I started to sweat. I do that when I’m nervous. I can gush buckets. “I’m going to see my father.”
“Oh yeah, and who is your father?” He knew I was up to something. I looked down at my Variety. All I could see was President of Paramount Makes Boffo Deal.
I looked at the guard and with all the earnestness I could grab said, “I’m going to see my father, Michael Eisner.”
The guard couldn’t believe this if he tried. “Michael Eisner has little kids, not someone like you.”
At least the sport coat is working, I thought. I’m looking older. “Well, I’m his stepson, and I’m here to visit him.”
The guard shook his head and said he would have to call Mr. Eisner’s office to see if I was telling the truth. “What’s your name, young man?”
And my first improv began. “Sure, I’ll give you my name, but I want to know your name. Because I’m late as it is and you know what a stickler he is about time, and since I’m going to be late, I want to tell him who it is that made me even later! That’s right, buddy boy, my Dad is not in a very good mood today and I’m not taking the brunt of his wrath; what’s your name?”
The guard started stammering. “Um, um, you go on in. And say hi to your Dad.”
I smiled ear to ear. “Will do! Thank you!” I walked on the lot, swinging my briefcase, acting like I owned the place.
From then on that guard thought I was Eisner’s son, and every time I saw him I told him how much my “Dad” liked him. I can only imagine that every time Eisner went through those gates the guard thought he was on the president’s good list.
A couple of years later I was working on Players, a Paramount film for Robert Evans and Anthony Harvey (the director of The Lion in Winter), and Eisner visited our set in Cuernavaca, Mexico. As I shook his hand I asked if he knew the story. He said he did and praised me for my unconventional methods of getting on the lot. Thank goodness he thought it was funny. Little did I know that ten years later I would film one of the biggest hits he ever had at Disney, Three Men and a Baby.
* * *
For the rest of my two weeks, I got up and had my “jobs.” One was calling the agents twice a day to ask if there was anything in commercials coming up for me. The other was making my way over to the Melrose gate of Paramount, punching in, and wandering around the lot.
One of my first memories of my Paramount exploration is visiting the Happy Days set. And when I say “visit,” I use the word loosely. “Sneak on” is a better description. I remember standing behind the director’s chair, hearing Garry Marshall, the creator of the series, shouting out orders in a strong Bronx accent. I thought to myself that his was probably the model voice for Fonzie. Seconds later, in walked Henry Winkler. He hugged Garry and said without a trace of an accent, “I’m doing Shakespeare next week and my throat is getting sore!” The Fonz doing Shakespeare? I thought. And where is the tough accent? Henry is a Yale graduate, a classically trained actor, who can do anything that is put in front of him. But at that moment all I saw was The Fonz, and he had someone else’s voice.
I spent all my time on the lot and before I knew it my time was up and I was supposed to go home. But I had caught the acting bug. The night before I had to leave I asked Michael, “If it’s all right with you can I stay a little longer?”
“Of course it is, I’m proud of what you’ve done so far. You’ve got balls, kid.”
The next hurdle was to ask my Mother and Father if I could stay. I knew that was going to be a tough phone call. I had never been away from home this long and I had college coming up in August.
“Mom, Dad, can I stay here in California just a bit more?” I asked when I called them. There was a silence on the other end.
Finally, I heard my father growl, “Why, Steven?”
“I just think I can do something with the acting. I really think I can, Dad. I just need two more weeks.”
There was more silence. There had never been that much silence in my house.
“You can stay, but only for two more weeks. But then, Steven, you have to get home,” my father said sternly. “You have school coming up, and I want you enrolled.”
But I wanted to stay as long as I could. Two weeks turned into two months. Paramount became my home away from home. I would wander the lot from early morning till late in the evening, often sleeping in offices. I would sneak home at 5 or 6 A.M., shower, check in with Michael, and go back out. I would eat, sleep, and dream Paramount. Every sound stage had a phone on it and I used these to my full advantage. I would call the operator and ask to be connected to any of the numbers I needed. I would call the agency, call my friends in New York, and most important call my parents, promising to be home soon.
My favorite stage was the water set, which could be filled with tons of H2O so that boats could be put in it. It was often empty, so I used it as my first “office.” One day I came in and there was a full submarine set in there. Who was on the top deck but Charlton Heston and Christopher Reeve. Heston was in a nasty mood that day and was storming around the set. He walked up to me, in my trusty sport coat and briefcase, and yelled, “Do you work for Universal?”
I stammered like Jackie Gleason and answered the only way I knew how. “Yes, sir, I work for Universal.”
“Well, you tell those assholes if they don’t fix this script, I will, and you don’t want me doing that!”
Geez, Moses is pissed off, I thought. I’ve got to do something. “I will, sir, and I’ll do it right away.”
He looked at me with those eyes, those amazing eyes, and I was stupefied. “Well, go on son, get it done.”
I tell you, for a few moments I believed I did work for Universal. I opened my briefcase and scribbled some gibberish on a piece of paper and ran off. I looked back and he was smiling at me, with a big movie-star grin. Chris Reeve came up behind him, put his hand on his shoulder. I strode out of the stage. This had to be a good day for me: Charlton Heston said “asshole” to me. Things must be looking up.
I also found myself haunting the Bing Crosby Productions bungalow. The offices at Paramount were unlocked then, and I would roam them all, but Bing’s offices were the most fun because they had golf carts. I would take one and tool around the lot. It sure beat walking and I could easily hide from or outrun the security guards, who did their nightly rounds on bicycles.
I would drive by the Lucille Ball makeup building often and stop to explore. The building was empty except for a few offices used as storage space. Some of the offices hadn’t been touched for years. It was in one of them that I found a call sheet for a Humphrey Bogart film. I also found an office on the top floor that had a beautiful view of the courtyard. Hm, I thought, this could be a great office for me to work from.
But it was empty, and what is an office without furniture?
One evening I took my golf cart over to the prop department, and found a young prop assistant putting the finishing touches on a wagon for Little House on the Prairie. I had already filled out a phony requisitions form from the Happy Days set, asking for a desk, a few chairs, and other office supplies.
“What is this stuff for?” the prop master asked.
“We’re putting in a desk for a new set, Mrs. Cunningham is opening a dress shop.” Dress shop? I thought. Couldn’t I come up with anything better than that?
He looked at me. “And who are you?”
“Why do you have a Crosby golf cart?”
“Hey, pal, if this is a problem I’ll have Garry Marshall’s office call down, I’m late as it is.” It seems that everything in the film and television business is always running late, and people understand this.
He groaned and pulled a beautiful desk, chairs, lamps, and even an ottoman out and said, “I’m closing up. Okay if I leave it here and you transport them yourself?”
I loaded up my furnishings and lugged them up the three flights of stairs to what would be my office. I sat behind my desk, opened my Dad’s briefcase, and took out my Variety and Hollywood Reporter. I imagined myself making deals, sitting in story conferences, and even writing scripts in there. It reminded me of Bill Holden’s office in Sunset Boulevard. I imagined myself getting phone calls, and …
Wait a minute! I thought. I had no phone!
The water stage was a stone’s throw away. My father has a degree in electrical engineering and had taught me a thing or two about wiring, so I spliced the telephone wire leading to the stage phone and strung a line up the side of the building to my office. The next day I waited until the young prop man was closing again and asked him for a phone. No requisitions form needed this time, he knew me.
Back at the office I hooked up the phone and it worked! To the operators it seemed as if I was calling from the stage, which was fine for me. They even got to know my voice and I got on a first-name basis with them. They were sweet, as many of the bolts in the show-business machine tend to be.
Two months in Hollywood and I had my own office, with a phone. I had my feet on the desk, and was requesting an outside line like a pro. I know it sounds a bit rascally, but that’s what show business is made of. Guys like me finding cracks in the wall when the doors are shut. Hollywood legend has it that David Geffen would steam open envelopes in the William Morris mail room, and Steven Spielberg had his own office (on the sly) at Universal when he was starting out. The business is full of these stories.
Michael would encourage me to keep going. “You have to live this business twenty-four hours a day. Eat, sleep, and dream it if you want to make it.” And I did. But August was coming up quickly, and with it my deadline to be out of California and up at Albany State.
Copyright © 2012 by Steve Guttenberg