Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hollywood 101: When Your 5-Year Plan Takes... Nearly 5 Years - Don't Give Up



      
     If you work in the media industry you need to have a plan. Not necessarily for every step of the way, since the industry is fluid and seismic, along with a chance of precipitation of corporate cliffhangers, mergers, buyouts, talent flaming out, talent being fired/laid-off, executive rollovers, your boss(es) being fired – anything can and will happen professionally. Whether you are just starting out in the business or been to more dances than you've remembered, 5-year plans rely much more on faith, fortitude, your own security in what you have to offer – and what you want.

   One big factor when it comes to 5-year plans is that so much of what your plan will entail depends on the state of the Industry when you enter it (read, take your place in line. It’s not even a Six Flags line, it’s one you could be standing in for years).

   A plan for your career is something that is personal and unique to you, so instead of a how-to, I’ll share my five-year plan and how, despite constant effort, it didn’t come to pass until the last minute – like a lot of Hollywood!

   I went back East, from Chicago, before I moved to L.A., spent time with my family since I didn’t know when I’d have a vacation next. My big brother took me to dinner, hugged me goodbye. His last words before I left: “Whatever you do, don’t do get out there and do porn!” 

   My 5-year plan was: to be working in the Industry in the L.A.-Hollywood market and drawing a steady paycheck from it by 2001. 

   I didn’t know the capacity it would be in, if it would be from a TV role or from an office gig, there was no way to tell. I figured no matter what job it was, all I needed was an in and then I could prove myself professionally in due time. I just needed to have it done in 5 years, by December 2001. 

California, here I come! I really wanted to land one X-Files episode, a character who could levitate nightclubs with his eye or something 21st Century like that. Year 1 of the 5-year plan. 1996.

   December 1996, I arrived to an unfurnished apartment in Los Feliz, CA that I’d never seen before and rented blind. I slept on my three-quarter length wool trenchcoat in my bedroom until I got a bed. I was an actor, 27, with a full resume of acting credits, mostly stage, from my career in Chicago theater. I’d read up on California stats, pre-Internet, as best I could – how the state of California was coming out of the recession, what the biggest industries were, the huge book consumption by Californians, financial per capita everything.

    The state of the industry when I got to Los Angeles: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were the template for what casting directors were looking for, on the buzz of Good Will Hunting, taking a break from the omnipresent Tom Cruise side-parted look that never went out of vogue in casting. Male cast members couldn’t have mustaches at Disney. Sherry Lansing was still at Paramount. The town shut down from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. From May to August, there was virtually no work in TV – the window lending itself to features, MOWs, indies. Hiatus alone removed a good quarter of the year to get anything done – a huge handicap, especially when you aren’t known and no one knows you. And I needed all the time I could get.

   The unseens came quickly: the job I’d had when I moved out here folded 3 months later. My last check, expressed from the East Coast, was in a mail bag that fell out of the plane into Lake Michigan. I kid you not. I received it by hand, sopping wet, the four figures on the check barely legible. My bank, seeing the remains of the fireplace-dried check, held it for 5 business days.

   I registered with 10 temp agencies. T-e-n. I called them all every Monday – my version of rolling calls. My attitude: may the first one with a gig win! I was an actor, which doesn’t lend itself to day work when that's all your driven to do, and a broadcast journalism major didn’t lend itself much bette. Still, I knew from my own ups-and-downs in entertainment to flow with it. Thus, I’d be temping at Coldwell Banker one week in downtown L.A. and the next week be at a porn studio in the Valley helping the mailroom out, discreetly boxing dildos of varying sizes and VHS copies of New Wave Hookers and Black Booty Busters (mostly for the Midwest market, if one wants to know).

  I worked as a seat-filler for $7 per show on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher at Television City. I got signed to a manager in Beverly Hills who never bothered to see all the gigs I got myself. Hair and makeup tests at Universal, shooting for Fox at 3 a.m. downtown. A featured extra on-camera, onstage  I was a lead actor, something I’d worked for years to achieve. I got work in plays at UCB and The Coast Playhouse that ran for months. But plays end. Still not at my 5-year plan of a steady gig and by now it was 1999.

       I got a day job, during third-shift. Steady check, benefits, but not what I ultimately wanted to be doing. It was on Sunset Blvd., right near The Hollywood Athletic Club. I watched A-list party, after-party,  from my office and the Blvd. on my breaks for years. I was literally across the street from creative people I knew I could work for and make a difference to their project if I could just audition or have an interview. Talk about being Under The Dome – it was like being on the first level of a video game for 3 years and wondering when the screen is going to change. I sent out stacks of headshots and resumes every day – the only arrows I had to pierce that invisible barrier keeping me from The Industry – the entire reason I’d moved here. Crickets. I still remember the rejection letter Tracey Edmonds sent me when I submitted for a movie she was producing. On real-letter head, real pen strokes, with advice to keep going. I treasured it. It was proof from somebody that I wasn't out of my mind to think I could do it.

       By 2000, I was still working the same day job(at night)  to pay the bills in-between occasional gigs. I got an agent, who really wanted to push me for music videos. I’d turned most of them down even when I liked the artists, since the vogue then was to be as outlandish as possible – dancing in a toga, eye makeup so thick it was like wearing Ray Bans, glitter in yer hair for days.
    
Trying to throw off casting director ennui and get cast as anything in the Untitled Rick James Project. Yes, I sent this to Suzanne de Passe! Year 3 of the 5-year plan. 
    Then one foggy Christmas Eve of 2000 – no, it wasn’t foggy, although there may have been a marine layer –  I got offered a part in Marilyn Manson’s The Fight Song video that was filming at a high school in The Valley. The premise given was Goths vs. Jocks, a twist on Columbine.

     It was a great work opportunity but it was Christmas Eve – who works on Christmas Eve? Marilyn Manson does (or did)! I was also told to expect an overnight shoot, for obvious narco-pharmaceutical reasons, allegedly, that had to do with the band. I turned it down. Again, great opportunity, and I knew you needed to be ready at the drop of a dime, but I had no desire to be one of the few professionally sober members of an overnight Christmas Eve music video shoot on a football field in The Valley that could wrap who-knows-when. Not at my rate! It’s not like it was going to pay any of my bills in a significant way, I politely told my agents no, and that was that.  

    One night at my day gig I was late by 10 minutes, a rarity since we all publicly clocked-in on a Rubik’s Cube-looking Tron box on the wall. My supervisor, a former Marine who carried a gun in his attaché case in the event of disgruntled employees - or their significant others - held a meeting with me and three other male co-workers. “You guys better step it up is all I’m saying. Because if you don’t want to, you can all go right to Jack In The Box and work there!” Not something you want to hear at midnight, at work, at the age of 31. I told him I’d never have to work at a Jack In The Box – and if I did, I’d be the hottest guy on fries and be out of there in 3 months. I quit the job in May 2001. No job in the wings. 7 months away from the end of my 5-year plan, and with 37 cents in the bank – after bills – as I walked out of the office on Wilshire Blvd. at midnight.

    Back to the drawing board. All 10 of my temp agencies were by now 4-year memories. I had to re-register, except the demands were much more specific. I didn’t know
PowerPoint from an Avid deck. I was still an aspiring actor, with two-tone hair. Acting work was out of the question as the SAG commercial actors strike was in full-effect. Scores of people filed down from the Hills to try to get some corporate work in the meantime.

   I temped the entire summer of 2001, until I got assigned to The Hollywood Reporter’s Wilshire Bureau. They needed a guy in the mailroom for one day. I worked that day in the mailroom and got a call the next week to come back. I got there and the mailroom employee who trained me switched me and another temp who’d been double booked. I got sent to The Hollywood Reporter’s editorial newsroom and the other temp went to the mailroom. Like that.

   Now, The Hollywood Reporter in 2001 was a daily trade making no less than $60M per year (I would be there to see when it made no less than $73M in gross revenue per year). To say it was nuts would be an understatement, but there was a method to it. I got put on the phones covering three news desks and knew pretty much everyone on the line – from years of reading THR and Variety, from submitting my headshot-resumes to their production companies, from years as a professional performer.

   I temped there for 2 months and got made an offer, thanks to the Publisher, then-Deputy Editor and Office Manager who trained me and went to bat for me. It wasn’t an acting role, but it most definitely was a role in the industry. A company of that size and revenue is like a spaceship on warp- speed, there’s no stepping off. I signed my offer on October 21, 2001 – about 53 days short of my 5-year plan. I’d be there for nearly 7 more years and over 1,400 daily printed issues. It changed my entire career. As for my day job manager who told us to go work at Jack In The Box? He landed at Toys R' Us.

  I early-on dissolved all of my agency and management ties to ensure there was no conflict-of-interest in my editorial work when I started. I can do a play anytime for the rest of my life if I want that outlet, but I knew as a Black actor there was no way I could take a gun-toting role (the majority of those on-camera offers) and then wield a notebook or mike to a studio head for a trade outlet with the same credibility. Hollywood would make me a thug, the Business of Hollywood would make me an analyst and a creative. It wasn't a hard decision.

   I understand talent inherently and I understand the executive process that has to finance and make it – and the myriad relationships, praise and hostility that exists between the two, both real and imagined. If I can help bridge those gaps with dual perspectives, then I’m happy. The hucksters and monsters all fall off eventually. I've seen it up close and known it was going to happen before the first letter fell.
 
Awards Season 2014, Paramount Lot

   I say all of this about where my 5-year plan led to  because I know that there’s always aspirants you meet or people just getting into the industry who look at you as Establishment  when they really have no idea what your path was or entailed. I don’t malign or hate on the youth trying to make a career now. I know what it’s like to be 26 years old and seen with a side-eye as nothing more than shock value, a stock stereotype, someone only in it for the short haul. The business is not what it was in 1996, no more than it was in 1976, 1936 or how it will be in 2016. That’s what makes it exciting and the more prepared you are the better – which can occupy any 5-year plan. You need to know in your sleep the direction the business is going in, sometimes before the business knows itself.

“Easy for you to say,” one aspiring director with his co-directing crew – a sideways, embryonic Funny or Die-ish collective – said to me after a premiere one night in 2002. “You’ve got a job. You go to this kind of thing every night, you’ve got it made.” I thought I detected a snort as he exhaled his Marlboro Light. He was maybe 23. We were at a backlot in Westwood. They looked like a nascent version of future Mumford & Sons and I understood the sneer – they believed they had what it takes too and were tired of waiting.

“See that college over there?” I replied, pointing over the palms to the visage of the UCLA Education Building. “That’s where I was evaluating elementary school writing tests for a month last summer. Does that look like Hollywood to you?  And I don’t go to these every night and when I do you can bet that I’ve been at work for 9 hours beforehand. I’m not in the movie, I didn’t just arrive fresh from bed. Do you have a 5-year plan?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Good,” I said, adding, “And can you handle it if it takes 4 years and 10 months before you hit? Because that’s how long it can take. Sometimes it’s gonna suck and if you don’t work through it, you and your friends here won’t even be friends by the end of it.”

I hope they made it. I know it sounded outlandish, but sometimes it does take nearly 5 years to get across the street. And if it takes 5 more to get to the next one, that’s okay.  From The Hollywood Reporter it took me 2 more years to get to The New York Times. And so on. But if you can get through the first 5-year plan, you can do it again. And again.

As the late great Ernest Borgnine told me when he was nominated for a Golden Globe at the age of 90: “If somebody knows your work and calls you and wants to play? It beats breaking rocks!” 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Memory Of My Grandfather


My grandfather driving the family boat on the Chesapeake Bay, with two of my aunts. I'm happily by the steering wheel. 1974.

   My grandfather passed away this week at 91 years old. He was known as James - or Jim - both equally fitting, but I only called him one name: Afi - Icelandic for 'grandfather.' My paternal grandparents had both died by the time I was born. My maternal grandfather, Gisli, lived in Iceland. He loved to send me craft chocolates and books of fairy tales from there. I knew him and loved him his whole life, seeing him whenever I was in Iceland.

My grandparents, Ragna and Jim Ellis, with me. .
James was my grandmother's second husband. We all lived in suburban Maryland and I saw Afi the most, since I was born in and lived in the US.

 He was a meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. He worked out of various official-looking 1970s federal buildings with bureaus in them and had a station wagon full of spare parts, lumber, recycling and man stuff in the back for his workroom. We kids got paid good money whenever my grandmother had her fill of the mess and commissioned us to toss, keep or clean.

With my aunts and, lower left to second left, two of my cousins outside my grandparents' house. Easter.

   He was one of the voices you heard when you called for the local weather report in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland: my Walter Cronkite. I took him to show & tell so he could show my classmates weather maps.  I never went anywhere that could get rained-out without asking him what the weather would be like in advance, while he looked at the sky, squinted, and gave his personal forecast.  He was never wrong. Sometimes he'd leave the bureau early, drive up to my elementary school and have me excused for the day....to go fishing. Doritos and Cokes for me while he had a beer or three at our favorite fishing spot, for hours,  near a bridge bank in Wayson's Corner.

   Afi was a World War II vet; he didn't allow toy or cap guns in the house. Period. Or chewing gum. But I think that rule had relaxed some by the time I secretly broke that rule at every turn. I was the only nine-year old defiantly buying Wrigleys by the case in Euro duty-free stores.

 He took me by myself to the VFW Post 9619 in Morningside, Maryland, where he'd let me hop up on tables with a corded microphone and sing all the songs the East Coast vets remembered. I'd be singing 'Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue'  and 'Has Anybody Seen My Gal?' while doing my best Michael Jackson Dancing Machine robotics, stepping over ashtrays, beer cans and whiskey neats in mod stack boots. Vets smoking and drinking, cheering for a little kid being a huge ham: the best.
My father, Sylvester Gibson.
   My grandparents and aunts lived not far from me, my Mom and my brother. We were one of the first interracial families in our neighborhood, a true blended family, and it is to my Mom and family's credit that the only time I was aware that society hadn't caught up to us was when I was faced with it outside our family. Our neighbors were great. I rarely got asked at school if I was adopted, more so when Diff'rent Strokes caught fire, but no I was not. It was not a writers room. 

My Mom, with me on the way. Iceland.
    When my grandmother and high-school age aunts moved to a quiet town in Florida,  my mother, my brother and I moved there the following summer. We were a strong family, we missed them, and off we went. 

   Florida was not the East Coast or Eastern seaboard, and that's not a diss, it's just what was certainly true for it in the early '80s. It was when I became 'Other' - the only black, bi-racial, Icelandic-American, African-American Icelander, you-name-it in most of my middle school classes, at the arcade, and for literal square miles. Older people, parents, some good Christians called me 'nigger' on the sidewalk like they were saying 'grass' or 'the sky is blue.' It happened a lot, never in front of my family, but in regular everyday encounters. Everyone wasn't like that, of course, and I have remaining friendships with the kids I went through teen-angst with, which is color-blind. 

   In the summer we moved to Florida, I'd gone to Capitol Hill with my mom and brother to say goodbye to my father at work. I was upset with him. He'd missed my 6th-grade graduation and I was pissed in the way that boys are with their Dad when they miss important events for work. He hugged me goodbye and I hugged him with the half-hearted reluctance of an 11 year old's unspoken frustration. 

"Give your father a real hug," my mother demanded. I looked at her and I looked at him. My Dad looked at her and smiled - with the smile I now can see in myself - and said, "It's okay. He doesn't have to." He was saving face. And I didn't. He was dead less than 3 months later, from a stroke. To this day, I bear hug everybody who hugs me. That haunted me for years. My father, Sylvester, was far too young. I look a lot like him. I regret that moment of pride that meant nothing in the face of never seeing him again. It was over.

   When my mother found out my father had died, she called out, "Boys!", grabbed me and my brother and flew out of the house, sobbing, fumbling for the keys to our car. She sobbed so hard on the road, unable to speak, that I asked her to pull over, afraid she couldn't see from the tears and we'd crash. "Where are we going!?" I asked from the passenger seat, not knowing what had upset her this much. My Mom is incredibly strong, I hadn't seen her this distraught ever. 

   We pulled in front of my grandparents' house and she went inside. Minutes later my grandfather asked me to come with him. He sat me down next to him, did a couple of stalled throat-clearings that I now know are the sound we men make when we don't want to cry. "Karl, today we lost a man that was very special and important to you and our family. Your father has died, Karl. I'm so sorry." Tragic. Unforgettable. It was horrible news, coming from anyone, but I'm glad it came from him. It was something I never forgot.

   My Mom, my brother and I moved to an apartment complex on a street called... Main Street. A school bus picked us kids in the complex up and made a few more stops at other subdivisions on the route to school. Assigned seating.

   The first day I got on the bus, the kid I was assigned to sit next to looked at me and sneered, "I'm not sittin' next to no f-----n' nigger!" I was dumbfounded. I wasn't shocked. I just had no idea we were in a parallel Selma in the early 1980s. I called him a choice word in response, said I didn't want to sit next to him either. Glares. No fists. Just me standing with an arm full of books while the school bus careened down I-95. It was gonna be a long school year.

  As soon as the bus got to our middle school, the bus driver asked for the principal and told him I'd been disruptive and he didn't want me on the school bus from here on out. Two sentences was all we'd said, but I was effectively kicked off the bus that morning. The kid who started my day with what a f-ing nigger I was got a pat on the head. How I got to school from that day forward, school administration told me with an assured twang, was on me and my family.

   My Mom relented, after I swore I could do it, and bought me a BMX bike that I rode 4 miles round-trip, to and from school, for an entire school-year and some. Every day, deep in the panhandle. I volunteered at a nursing home that was on my way home, the better to constructively transmute my rage when the school bus would pass me and laughter would waft from the windows as I pedaled a bike, in traffic, in 90 degrees.

   In Florida the thunderstorms are Gothic and epic. It doesn't just rain, it  literally pours. Riding a bike to school in the rain was out of the question. You'd be soaked to the Hanes for 2/3 of the day in air-conditioning, miserable. Without fail, anytime it rained, my grandfather - who knew I'd been kicked off the bus and was a post-retirement school bus driver himself - would come and put my bike in the back of his station wagon and drive me to school. All the time. That's the kind of man he was.

   His passing this week was sudden, but merciful to him, in his sleep.The thought of losing him last week made my mouth widen in a grimace of pain akin to a CGI-sequence, like my jaw would unhinge. I cried until I saw rainbows around any source of light and felt unmoored.

 He wasn't my father. He has children who love him dearly. He has many grandchildren who love him equally and have their own great stories. Generations of love. He was our grandfather and there was enough of him to go around. The grandfather you could hug anytime because he appreciated kindness and family. He confirmed you with them, easily.That's what went through my mind earlier this week. It'll never happen quite that way again.

   A few years ago, I was visiting with him at his house. We were having a drink, some great Scotch. He offered me a beer as a chaser and I made a demonstration of tilt-pouring it into a glass, with all the elan I thought it intimated, and said, "See, Afi - I paid attention! It's just classier and old-school drinking beer from a glass, right?!"  Man drinks. Ha! Isn't this the best?

   "Oh, Karl," he laughed, "I started doing that in World War II because all the GI's used to put their cigarettes out in beer cans all over the place, without asking whose it was. Why, if you didn't pour it in a glass, well, you didn't know what the hell you'd be drinking! We just didn't want to swallow cigarette butts." We laughed our asses off. I thought it'd been a classy gesture all these years - he was the one who'd co-hosted Mad Men-style cocktail hours with my grandmother, right down to crystal lighters and ashtrays. Instead, he was just being practical. He was also a fountain of wisdom - you could ask him anything.

   We will all miss him but we know he had a great life. No family or person is perfect, but we always had and have metric tons of love. No matter what, ultimately, occasional furies and arguments aside. We will remain so: it's what we lived, what we saw, what we were taught. He is surely with my grandmother now, his lost loved ones, daughter, and God. 

   One of the last things my grandfather said to me was, "I never worry about you, Karl." I thought, that's impossible. I chose two adulthood professions, theater and journalism, that were precarious at best. But he said it was true. And that my father couldn't say it and he did... it meant and means a priceless value. And he's right. So, to my grandfather, one of my heroes:  I'm honored to have known you and been your grandson. Thank you for sharing and teaching me your love of books and magazines. There was information in there, he said, and there is. A world of it. Between my mother's gift of words, spoken and written, and his voracious reading, it became my passion. Thanks again, Afi. I love you. 

Skaal!

- Karl 




  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Hollywood Prep: Turning Down A Three-Way



Hollywood Prep is a series of posts of musings/advice for industry folk/industry observers, just in case it comes in handy. If it happened in my own experience and I can share or shine a light on some of the ludicrous or pensive obstacles, challenges or kooky situations that can arise in the Hollywood veldt, I'm glad to! I know what I know... Here we go.... - Karl

Photo by Karl Gibson
Situation: Turning Down A Three-Way

      It was 1998. I was working nights at an office on Sunset Blvd, right across from the Hollywood Athletic Club, on one side, and Cat and Fiddle Pub & Restaurant on the other

     This was 1998, not 2008, so it was still dicey and skeevy sometimes in those graveyard hours, depending on events or parties happening around the area. I'd go out onto the Boulevard on my work breaks and see guys and girls getting arrested for roofing each other, scattered nickel bags in the grass if the fire marshall came to shut a party down, the occasional mid-level studio temp smoking crack behind the CNN building...
   
     I'd watch the night life pass by as I willed my 5-year plan to come true ASAP and be a working member of the industry. 1998 was Year Two of my plan. I didn't know it but I had three more years to go before side jobs, night jobs, temp jobs would be a thing of the past for a good stretch of time.

     In the evening, before my third-shift job, I was acting in a play, 20 Questions, that was in the midst of a six -month run, between the Tamarind Playhouse (now The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater)  and the West Coast Playhouse. My dressing room at the Coast Playhouse had been the same one Samuel Jackson and David Hyde Pierce had used at points in their career, and if I could have said helpful prayers to their long shed sweat, I would have.

    And so it was one early morning, probably around 3 a.m., that I took a smoke break outside of my office on Sunset.  I had two agents, I'd let my manager go after she couldn't be bothered to see this long-running play I'd booked myself, and I was brainstorming when all of a sudden a huge stretch limo pulled over directly where I was standing alone in front of a huge, painted concrete plant enclosure. I tried to avert my eyes from the limo, assuming the pull-over in front of me had nothing to do with me.  It was late, there was no traffic, the limo was idling. 

   The passenger door of the limo's backseat swung open wide and there he was, an actor I recognized from his past award-winning television run. Next to him was a blonde woman in a lipstick-red, rubber micro-mini. I thought they needed...directions?

   "Hey, brother!" Actor X. said, leaning over in the expansive back seat to talk. "What are you up to right now?"
 

   "Hi," I answered. I didn't step up to the limo. "Just on a quick break."

   "Well, fuck that! I think you should get in with us and we all go to my place and have a good time. What'dya say? Got me a prime piece of A-list porn star ass, right here," he pointed to the blonde, with a Charo-Angelyne disco ponytail, who flashed lacquered nails and teeth in a cheerful wave as he motioned to her vinyl-crossed cleavage. "Just the three of us."

    The limo engine was running and I  looked at them both with a 3 a.m. on-the-clock gravitas and congenial smile. I could no sooner just leave work and have a threesome any more than I could build a hovercraft from scratch. Then I thought, is he high? I knew nothing of his personal life or anything - I hadn't watched his series in its prime or in repeats. He was a pleasant guy, but the whole proposition was ludicrous and indicative of time in the world I didn't have. Besides, I'd much rather have had the opportunity to act with him than have a three-way. It wasn't even a thought.

     "No, I'm fine, thank you! But have fun you guys!" I said, sounding like a sitcom waiting for the laugh track. What do you say? This was Hollywood! Sunset Blvd! 3 a.m.! Nothing out of the ordinary with the Hollywood Hills looming.

    "I didn't ask how you were," he laughed. " I can see how you are - you look pretty cool. All you have to do is come on! That's why we stopped!"


    "No, that's okay. I'm on a break! You know, like a work break. I work here, upstairs," I said, miming an elevator bank, the big-storied building, my office row... responsibilities.


    "Well, you're no fun!" Actor X said. The blonde lady giggled. "Tell you what: we're not going to bed anytime soon, we'll definitely be up for a while. How about you take down my number and call me when your shift is over and we'll take it from there?"

     I didn't know how else to say no without  being harsh, so I relayed another truth. "I don't have a pen," I shrugged. That should do it, I thought, knowing I'd be seen as lame. Yeppers, I'm no fun, door closes, off they go to PNP. Instead...

    "Well, guess what?" Actor X said, somewhat annoyed, rummaging through a compartment, getting out of the the limo, and striding past me to the concrete planter behind me. "I have a fucking pen, so now what?" He took out a Sharpie and proceeded to write his phone number on the planter like graffiti, in huge numbers, all except the area code. "See how we solved that?!"

     Now that's some serious chutzpah in a 555-5555 world. I couldn't believe he'd put his phone number out there for anyone to casually write down or crank call. He faced me and said, "Now there's no excuse. On your next break, write it down and call me when you're off." He didn't wait for an answer, just smiled, got back into the limo, the blonde winked, and he told the driver to go. 

    I went back into the office, the whole encounter surreal, and apologized for being late, told one of my cube mates, who'd just done a tv-movie with Cybill Shepherd,  what had happened. "And you came back? Here!?" she swooned.

    "Hey, Ros," I called to my shift manager. "Clock me out for another 10."

     I went to the break room, grabbed some 409 cleaning spray from under the sink, went back outside and spent my last break scrubbing Actor X's publicly scrawled phone number off the wall until it was a Rorschach blur. I neither wrote it down or remembered it. I did know he wasn't getting a call back and would think me an idiot, but I did him a solid. Friggin' actors, I thought, separated from him by a gazillion tax brackets and some practical thinking - it's always the cool people that save their asses- as I scrubbed his digits away before morning rush-hour traffic hit.

     My shift ended that morning, I went home and did what I always did after work: wrote cover letters, enclosed head shots (remember that?). No three-way, just my real-life in Los Feliz and the next professional step to get to. I chalked the whole thing up to absurdist comedy, A-list street theater. Seven years later I was inside the Hollywood Athletic Club covering premieres, after-parties and catching up with actors and producers I hadn't seen or worked with in years. Amazing to look across the street... just 15 steps... and know that's where I memorized lines and studied every trade magazine to forge a continuing creative, professional path for myself.
No short-cuts, just a plan.

  So, that's my A-list three-way-that-wasn't story. Trust me, I'm not judging. I'm just saying: whatever you do - stick to your plan. As for audacious, hilarious Actor X. - no harm done. Everybody's happy and working. And you're welcome, brother.



   

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Where All The Old Hollywood Railroad Posts Went


 Karl Gibson here, with a much overdue explanation,as far as what happened to all of the blog posts that used to be on this site over the last few years. 

     Here's what happened and just follow me, I'll keep it 100% real, promise.
 
     I started my Hollywood Railroad blog in 2009. The title came from all of the Industry inside jokes that I was a proponent for overlooked talent submitted to the trade magazines - and I worked for one of the majors in that space at The Hollywood Reporter. Here's why: I'd been an actor before I became a professional journalist. I'd been talent. I knew more about the round-file than the carpet the round file was sitting on. And I wanted to be the complete antithesis of that. 

     In my 7 years at THR. if I was submitted a relevant, concise pitch that wouldn't make me look insane for forwarding it on, I would give it to the respective editors. I'd forward it or I'd write it up or present it. I did it on instinct and never had to argue with an editor when I did. That was how the nickname came about, because I wasn't putting my tastes first. I was objectively sticking to the editorial discretion of others in charge of their particular beat. I'm glad I had/have that sensibility and it helped me champion a lot of talent, with no agenda. If it's a well-written pitch, here you go, you decide. That's how I roll.

    So, I had the title of my blog. I didn't start it with visions of any side income. I'm a trusted professional, I wasn't going to be drawing dicks over people's faces.It was a personal thing.
 I created Hollywood Railroad to establish who I was as a person and professional, beyond brief passings on the 24-hour media circuit. I included journal entries, essays, links I liked, unpublished news coverage I'd done... freestyle. 

     I had tens of thousands of readers over the time of those posts, from 2009-2013 and I appreciated every single one of you. To share journal entries or write about what were extremely personal events in my life was an expansion I forced myself to do, knowing that my intentions were sincere in doing it. Your reader visits here and time gifted to me encouraged me to do it and to write more. I never worried about backlash for honesty or candor and I was supported. It was a very personal bond. Feedback through personal e-mails and social media check-ins where we could encourage our efforts and similar trajectories was amazing and we're still in touch.

     Summer 2013: I went to make a post  here - it had been months since my last one - and the blog was gone. I'd missed my annual renewal with Go Daddy.That simple/banal. I was in a work crush and I missed the  domain renewal - as well as the e-mail reminder on my personal e-mail account. I could either buy it back for 10 times what I paid for it in the first place..or I could wait, lose all of the content, and buy the name back at auction. Yada, yada, I know - but this is for anyone else who may be waylaid by professional obligations. A friendly reminder, if you will!

     I thought about it, I got links sent to me that could, in theory, retrieve my deleted blog posts from the maw of oblivion. And I couldn't. If the blog, and hundreds of posts, was gone, then I'd take my lumps.

     For one, the irony wasn't lost on me: I hadn't missed any work deadlines - I'd missed my own deadline to renew my blog domain. It wasn't cost-prohibitive, I just got sidetracked. And that sucked. And Go Daddy has no reason to care. It was my fault for not checking my personal e-mail for those days. Embarrassing somewhat, but true!

     I made the decision to let the old content go. It had been read and it wasn't like I can't write it again, if relevant - and better. I put it out there.

     I apologize for not addressing the lost blog archives sooner and for links you may still come upon in search that are no longer there. I'll write more and the lesson, a hard one I taught myself, is not to put every professional obligation before checking in on your own - be it a book, blog, or any creative endeavor. Me to myself: you lost your blog, your pride won't let you buy it back (this time) and it won't happen again.

     I'm back and I'll be writing and sharing even more.I went from THR to the New York Times Co., to many other things and my current work over the time I started this 'niche' and personal blog. I thank all of the reader's community I got to know. I'll be starting again. I know I'm one online voice of millions - and that we get to kick it here and keep it 100 is amazing and I appreciate you incredibly. More soon... - Karl

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hollywood Stamina: A Few Words About Mickey Rooney



      

One of the great things about starting in entertainment news with The Hollywood Reporter in 2001 was that the magazine itself was a legacy publication that had been around as long as the luminaries who used to make its pages from the start. As I started gaining more and more entrée to the awards and event circuits on behalf of the magazine, it was always a huge pleasure to meet and shake hands with Hollywood’s legends, people who may not be getting the daily headlines but were Still Here - people who knew there was really nothing new under the sun. The formats may have changed and the technology with which to view it, but as I always say: ‘Same popcorn, different box.’

     I last saw and talked to Mickey Rooney in the winter of 2003, leading up to the Oscars at The Kodak Theater. Hollywood was going throwback with the upcoming Oscar show, eschewing red carpet spectacle and what-are-they-wearing kitsch in solidarity with the rest of the country as the Iraq War loomed.

     The event was at The Hollywood & Highland complex in a new restaurant-bar and somewhat informal. It felt more like a fast rest area from the six-month grind that is every awards season. I took stock of the room, picking a point to start a clockwise revolution around the room, shaking hands, handing out business cards for editorial news, checking in with talent and heading home after a 12-hour shift.

     I saw an Oscar-nominated actress of another decade having a drink. She’d been to THR’s Wilshire Blvd. editorial offices before, which is how I knew her. She’d been in the acting game long enough to not take much too seriously and I was a fan of her nominated work and episodic ‘70s TV appearances. She asked me about work and I asked her about the upcoming Oscar ceremony. This wasn’t an interview, just conversation, so I asked if she was ready for the truncated red carpet?

“I’m STILL walking the red carpet, dear! I don’t care, war or no war – why should I not be able to wear and show off my bee-yoooo-tiful dress?!”
“And if there’s no red carpet?” I asked.
“Then I’ll just stay home! I mean, what would be the point?” 

     Uh..solidarity with the audience not even two years after 9/11? Layoffs, a war-time economy not affording most people the luxury of five-figure one-time wearables? 

     I didn’t say any of this, just listened and smiled. She wasn’t buying Hollywood’s momentary tasteful moment  for one solitary second, at least on the surface.

“Karl, I want you to meet someone!” she said, leading me over to a seated older man whose feet rested above the floor. “Mickey, I want you to meet someone. Karl this is Mickey Rooney. Mickey, this is Karl Gibson and he’s from The Hollywood Reporter.”

     In less than two seconds, the 82-year old Rooney was on his feet in one upright movement and reached over and shook my hand. It still is the firmest handshake I’ve every received from a man, the kind that squeezes your entire hand to the wrist and could pop your arm off at the socket from sheer pressure. I was impressed enough with that, much less to meet a man who’d been around since I could remember turning on a TV.

    We shook hands and I sat down and talked with him for a short while. It’d been 76 years since he started in the business and I found him fascinating. A short, weathered fireplug of a man, I remember being extremely impacted by so much that Rooney represented professionally. 

     Here was a guy who’d seen every ‘disruption’ in the business there was: sound in films, color in films, a multitude of wars (he served in World War II), TV, cable, VCRs, DVD players, TiVo…and more... and he was still working. Did he want to be relegated to loopy characters or America’s jubilant grandpa? It didn’t matter, he was working. I was 33 years old at the time and had started as a stage actor at scale at 14 – no stranger to the basic existential concerns of anyone trying to work and maintain hard-earned credibility in what is an angst-ridden business for many. Mickey Rooney had tasted plenty of success, earned it. 

     Sure, he’d been a box-office star who’d been the top of his era’s A-list for a moment in time, but for many of the decades he’d not been... and he still kept working. All I could think was ‘Imagine 50 more years of this!?' That's a lot in any media profession: remaining viable, supporting your lifestyle, keeping yourself and your family taken care of no matter the paradigm shifts and maturation of subsequent audiences wanting to see their own stars get their moment.

  
    I remember A.C. Lyles, the long-standing Paramount producer, telling me in 2009 about coming to Hollywood on a train from Florida because he’d fallen in love with the movies via the film Wings. He wrote letters to Paramount from Florida, looking for any minor job he could get and ended up taking a train to Hollywood and being given a candy vendor job on the studio lot. Lyles was just two years older than Mickey Rooney,  by then studio royalty, and he said it was Mickey Rooney who took an interest in him, saw to it that he could get rides to Rooney’s home and start mixing with Hollywood’s younger power crowd. He recalled Rooney’s generosity, comparing his tutelage under Rooney with that of someone coming to town and being shown the ropes by someone of Tom Cruise’s influence. Lyles’ recollection was one of the surprising generosity that someone at the top of their game can extend to someone with the same passion but no connections.


     Back to the 2003 Oscar party: I left the event incredibly impressed by Mickey Rooney, because his professional trajectory is what many of us can expect if we’re fortunate to make a lifetime working and living in a business that we love. To many of my peers whom I told of meeting him, there was some polite laughter - Mickey Rooney? - the one who’d been a magnet of some of the town’s legendary beauties (Ava Gardner!), the marriages, the drama, growing old, a skosh daffy.

     All I saw was a man who knew this industry in his sleep, who knew the possibilities behind a routine handshake, had an interest in people who wanted to produce material he could have a role in. Someone who wanted to work. It takes stamina, humility, and a hell of a lot of common sense and I am glad to have met him. I have many heroes I've been fortunate to have the professional occasion to meet - Hollywood's legends of the past, the many African-American musicians and actors who remember closets as dressing rooms and entering through the back door, segregated casting agencies and worse.  They're survivors and they remember history. Mickey Rooney's story was different, but he worked his ass off and you have to admire the kind of hustle and nerves that takes in a business that requires constant momentum.

    You won’t see a star like Mickey Rooney anytime soon. Eight decades spent working in this business deserves props, no matter how you slice it. Rest in peace, Mickey. Ya did good, kid.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

L.A. On The Real, Vol. 1: Christmas In Babylon



Preface: This is a true story. Names have been changed, of course, but nothing else!

 

     It's December 23, 1996 - I've been in Los Angeles for 9 days by way of the East Coast and a nine-year theatrical career in Chicago. I have a roommate, in these early days, and we don't even have a refrigerator at this time (Note to future settlers: refrigerators don't come standard with L.A. apartments)I'm living in Los Feliz and it's Christmas season, doesn't  remotely feel that way; it's in the '70s weather-wise and most of the folks in the hills are in St. Barts, the East Coast, or the Midwest (quiet as it's kept).  

     A present to myself is that I've finally made the move to Los Angeles and the sky's the limit. I'm unaware that my five-year plan will not come to pass until the fourth year and eleventh month of those 5 years, but that's the hustle: keep at it 100% until you get in.

     The roommate comes in this Dec. 23rd afternoon and says we've scored an invite to a Hollywood producer's house in the hills for Christmas dinner. He seems to not believe our luck. We'd be stupid not to go. 

     My Afro-Scandinavian practicality and logic makes me question the largesse of such an invite. Producer X doesn't know us, but he is inviting us to Christmas dinner. Why? My roommate is older than I am, definitely handsome, and he's an actor, too. Producers like actors for the most part, and even if they don't, it's their business to keep an eye out for them. Maybe this is an in-road for my roomie? I've been invited out of politesse, I'm assuming, but it's still very considerate. I'm reading a Bruce Wagner novel at that moment, so this ought to be interesting.
Christmas with industry vets!

     My buddy/roommate tells me what Producer X told him: Producer X worked at Paramount in the early '70s during the Robert Evans-era, in legal, before segueing into producing with TV movies in the late '70s and mid-'80s. He's semi-retired now, a Black man who's made it in a tough industry that is far less color-blind than most of its consumers could ever wrap their heads around.

      He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - feel free to look at it anytime. It's one of those stars you look at and don't know who he is, but he has one. He likes meeting other newcomers and, if he can be of any helpful advice, would like to get to know us and break bread. He's gay, nothing earth-shattering in Los Angeles, where sexuality is either one of three F's: financial, fluid, or fixed (wherever one determines they fall on the Kinsey scale). This is the intel Producer X shares.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Exhibit K: Kenan Thompson Said What?


     1998: I've just finished a show at The Tamarind Theater on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles (now the theater for Uprights Citizens Brigade) and my godparents came to the show. Both theater producers, they surprised me with dinner in Beverly Hills at an Industry eatery with late hours. We got seated, me looking at the photos of celebrities and iconic one-sheets lining the walls. We have a nice table and it's all good since I've still got on stage makeup and a wall of screaming bleached hair. The table next to us is empty until Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell are seated next to us.


      They're both 17 years at the time and have a couple of young lady friends with them. They're working teenagers with a TV series and, for the moment, like any giddy high-school age teens, except with more money. I clandestinely asked if my table could be moved. Not for any other reason than my table was talking pretty blue and it's awkward partying next to...teenagers! I'm 27 years old at this point and it's just odd, nothing personal. I'm sure they're cool but they're goofy and young and with our tables thisclose it feels like being at the kiddie table. There's no free tables so I sit next to them, silently happy for their success. They're Nickelodeon stars...and Black!...and God knows when I was of Nickelodeon age there was only like one Black kid on the whole thing, inYou Can't Do That On Television, so Keenan and Kel must be rock stars -and there's two of them in one cast. Wow! As an actor, casting is never as blind as thought, so there's progress.

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