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ROLLING THE DICE WITH COSBY

All my life, I wanted to be an actor. I love being on stage. Being in front of an audience electrifies me like nothing else I have ever experienced; it’s like a drug. In fact, what I used to tell my friends in high school, when they asked why I didn’t smoke dope, or drink, was that my high came from acting; there was simply nothing else that could compare to the euphoria and the ego boost that came from a spotlight in my eyes, boards under my feet, and applause in my ears. I also love television — I’ve watched enough of it —  and growing up, couldn’t imagine a better life than acting on television. In high school, my dreams were filled with all of the possibilities that awaited me as a Hollywood television star. Life proved to be a bit different and in the summer of 1989 after five years in the business, I was rather far afield of my dream. I was unemployed, I was almost broke, and I was far from being a star. I didn’t even live in Hollywood. I was camped in a cozy two-bedroom co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, my self-identity and my self-worth were measured in terms of how close I was to my ideal. The closer I was to that ideal, the more I felt realized as a person and as a man. Conversely, the further away I was from my wants, the less realized I was.  What that means in non-psycho babble is that when I was working, I was happy, when I was unemployed, I was miserable and angry that I wasn’t working, because I should have been working. I’d been unemployed for a long time.

So, my life at the time consisted of seeing Corey off to work each morning, walking along the edge of Prospect Park to my gym in Prospect Heights, lifting weights, walking back along Prospect Park West home, muddle through house chores, and then watch television or listen to talk radio.  Occasionally, I would have business that took me out of my prison co-op and into the city, but not very often. My spirit was drained and I was angry at everything. I was angry at being broke; angry at a business that had thus far failed to recognize my genius; angry at my agents, who didn’t seem to give a shit about my career; and I was angry at Corey because, well, because she wasn’t whatever I needed her to be on any particular day. It was an impossible situation for her – for anyone.

By the time I received the appointment to audition for the Cosby Show, Corey and I were both pretty worn down. She was on her way back to law school in a couple of weeks, and we both sensed that it might be the last time we would be together. Of course, we were still hopeful in the way that young lovers always hope beyond hope that the poets are telling the truth and that love will win out. The poets are liars. We were hanging on by our fingernails, trying to act as if everything were normal, remembering the good times and wondering how it all went so terribly wrong, while the funeral dirge played quietly in the background. We both heard it. But the poets and all that…

On a brighter note, my career prospects were looking up. In about a week’s time, I had auditioned for and was preparing to screen test for both the role of Martin on the Cosby Show and a contract role on As The World Turns.

A screen test conjures images of old Hollywood, with lots of technicians running around focusing lights, make-up artists and hair dressers fussing about the hopeful movie star.  A director shouts: “Lights! Cameras! Action!”  None of that happens. A screen test is really a fancy way of saying reading the scene in front of a video camera; no make-up artists (unless you bring them yourself) , no lights, and no director with riding pants, beret, and a big megaphone.

The way a screen test typically works is that the studio, production company, or network will negotiate the actor’s contract prior to his screen test. That contract is put into something called a deal memo, which the actor signs before the test. If the actor is hired, the producers will sign their portion of the deal memo and send it back to the actor. Very dull stuff. Sometimes the reading is in a conference room, or viewing theater, with 30 or 40 people watching and sometimes the reading takes place in a small office, with just a few essential people present. The former is the rule. The producers will be there, the director, the studio representatives, and a lot of people who clearly could — and probably should — be doing something else. Of course, in Hollywood everyone is a very important person, so it’s no surprise that the valet insists on being at the screen test. “Ahh, man. I can’t park your car right now. I’ve got to get upstairs to watch a screen test.”

One of the other particulars about screen tests is that it is difficult, though not unheard of, to test for two television programs at the same time. In order for that to work, one show must read you in what is called “second position.” When a program takes second position, it means that they have given the other show first dibs. If the actor books the show in first position, the program in second position agrees to release the actor from his deal memo. I was fortunate that two programs wanted to screen test me. I was unfortunate in that neither program would agree to take second position. I felt blessed with opportunity, but too much opportunity could be a bad thing. I needed a job – boy did I need a job. This was no time to be fooling around.

What to do? Of course, nothing was guaranteed, but I was confident about my chances with the soap opera. In my mind, the job was already mine. There was no way I was not going to be hired by ATWT. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally, I have a sixth sense about jobs. A role will come along and it will just have my name on it. The role is mine and short of simply walking away and not auditioning, there is nothing I could do NOT to be hired. Such was the case with the job on ATWT. I had no such sixth-sense about the job on The Cosby Show. And the role I really wanted was the role about which I was most uncertain.

I was also aware that being a regular on the number one rated show in the country would do considerably more for my career than would being a contract player on ATWT, though that was no small job either. I needed a job and I needed money. ATWT would give me both and to me it seemed a sure thing.

But I still had to eat. Should I go for the sure thing, or roll the dice and try for the dream come true? This was the debate going on in my mind, over and over. I had analyzed every angle, and then over-analyzed every possibility until my mind was twisted into knots. I was wandering the streets of Brooklyn mumbling to myself like a mental patient! It was time to get some advice.

I sat in my agent’s office and laid out the entire dilemma for him.

“Joseph,” Ron began, “when I first signed you as a client, I thought, ‘Here’s a good-looking guy, maybe he’s good for a soap opera or two. Maybe a few guest appearances.’”

I sat there thinking, “So far this is one hell of a pep talk. What the hell?”

He continued. “But after I saw your work in Coriolanus, (this was part of Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare series at the Public Theater. The play starred Christopher Walken and Irene Wirth.) I realized that you are a much better actor than I had given you credit for.”

“Thank you.” I guess. What in the hell?

Ron plowed ahead. “You can do better than soaps.”

So far, his speech was doing wonders for my ego. What in the living hell!

“I can’t tell you what to do, but I am a gambling man and I have a house in the country.”

Again, not the greatest pep talk in the world, but that last part stuck with me. I wanted a house in the country too. Shoot! I want a house in the country and a house in the city! Sign me up! I’ll be a gambling fool! If only there was some way to guarantee that I wouldn’t roll snake eyes… (Clearly, it was going to take time for me to get the gambling man thing down.)

I told Ron to call ATWT and thank them. I was going for the house in the country.


About Author

Joseph C. Phillips

Joseph C. Phillips was born on January 17, 1962 in Denver, Colorado, USA as Joseph Connor Phillips. He is an actor, known for General Hospital (1994), The Cosby Show (1984) and Strictly Business (1991). He has been married to Nicole since 1994. They have three children.

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