After laying claim to my future wife, I headed to Los Angeles for pilot season. In a few short weeks, I would once again be faced with the prospect of taking a gamble. Or was I taking a risk? And what is the difference?
There certainly are similarities. Both a risk and a gamble involve acting with a chance of success or failure. Additionally, both a risk and a gamble involve acting with boldness. The difference, however, is that a risk involves a level of calculation, a thinking through of the pros and cons; an acknowledgment that one might not be successful, but a decision that the rewards outweigh the chance of failure. It is a distinction that I have often heard poker players use. Poker, they say, involves risk. The game has an element of luck, however, luck is not the primary driver; success in poker relies on much more than the whim of the gods. Poker requires skill and knowledge, ability and talent. Luck hopes for the intercession of things that are out of our control. “If I am lucky, the little ball will land on my number.” Risk welcomes luck, but relies on preparation, skill, and hard work. To speak life was to say, “Joseph, you have worked hard. You are prepared and you are a skilled actor. Let’s take a risk.”
The distinction, however narrow, was important because it spoke to my self-worth. How could I ever hope to succeed if I didn’t believe in my own power to determine the outcome? Risk says, “I am! I can!” Gamble says, “I hope. I wish.” The former has power. The latter implies impotence. Some actors – some people – learn this lesson early in life; it took me several years. Too bad this understanding about risk hadn’t gelled when I negotiated my deal for Strictly Business. Perhaps I might not have become a sharecropper on the Island Films plantation. At any rate, a few weeks after leaving Nicole and as I pondered asking her to marry me, this understanding of risk played an important role in a career decision I made during that pilot season.
Similar to when I was testing for the Cosby Show, I was being asked to screen test for two different television programs. The first opportunity was to play the lead in a science fiction thriller called M.A.N.T.I.S., about a brilliant young scientist who was also a pararaplegic: He designs an exoskeleton suit that enables him to walk and gives him superhuman strength, and (I guess) makes him look like a praying mantis. He uses his powers to fight crime. (Good Lord, there are a lot of stupid ideas that end up on television.)
The second opportunity was to play a much smaller role on a nighttime drama (otherwise known as a prime time soap opera) called Trade Winds. Trade Winds was the story of two wealthy families on the island of St. Martin. The role I was being considered for was as a casino owner and friend of the “black sheep” son of one of the families. I don’t remember much about the role, except that it only had one scene in the pilot. Oh, and that it was filmed on location in the Virgin Islands. I had to choose one: The lead in a network drama, or a “go get help” role.
A “go get help” role is one that gets a title credit, but doesn’t get to do very much during the actual show; their sole purpose is to facilitate the lead actor’s story-line. I coined this term one day while watching an episode of Miami Vice: Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were just about to capture the bad guys when Don Johnson looked at Olivia Brown and said, “Go get help!”
Also similar to my situation four years earlier, I was confident in my chances to get the role as the casino owner, but less so for M.A.N.T.I.S. Neither program would read me in second position, so I had to choose. I agonized over the decision. I called Nicole, who thought it would be great to visit me at work in the Virgin Islands. I talked it over with my best friend, who was typically non-committal and thus completely unhelpful. I wandered the streets of Los Angeles, talking to myself like a mental patient. Finally, I thought, “I still want my house in the country.” However, I also asked myself this question: “Who are you? Are you a leading man or are you just a ‘go get help’ player?” I decided that I was a leading actor, so again, I went for the bigger prize – M.A.N.T.I.S. I took the risk.
Of course, any of you who recall the program know that I did not star in M.A.N.T.I.S. My audition did not go well.
The entire enterprise was very odd. During my first audition, the casting director asked me to “Read the scene again, but this time, can you lower your voice–use your lower register?” I am pretty certain I just stared at her blankly. But rather than ask for clarification, I dove in. I lowered my voice. Think back to when we were kids and lowered our voices in order to sound grown up. Or think about trying to sing bass. That is how I sounded and to my ears, I sounded ridiculous.
“Perfect!” exclaimed the casting director.
So, that is how I went into my screen test, sounding like a little boy pretending to be his father. Midway through my audition, I happened to notice the expression on the face of the director, Eric Laneville. Eric had a look on his face like, “What the hell is he doing?” Apparently, I sounded ridiculous to him as well. The casting director, on the other hand, sat there with a big smile on her face. I knew I was dead, as dead as Mantis’ legs. I had believed in myself and taken a risk, and then delivered a horrible audition.
I finished reading, said thank you, and left the room. I wanted to die. Depression hit me immediately. The gray lady took me by the hand, and whispered, “Come on, baby. Let’s get away from all of these bad people.” She led me out into the parking lot and back to my apartment.
I recall that Erica Gimpel was at the audition and spoke to me. Erica was just so sweet. At one point, I actually had a bit of a crush on her. We stepped on the elevator and she smiled and said, “Hi, Joseph! How’d it go?” A perfect opportunity to make a friend with someone I genuinely liked. Instead, I mumbled something and looked away. She’s hasn’t spoken to me since.
Erica, if you are reading this, I apologize, it was nothing personal. I was just, well, depressed.
But the point is that I had the power. I took a risk and was unsuccessful that time, at least in the sense that I didn’t get the job. But getting the job was only part of a bigger whole. I would make the same choice again (minus the deep voice). To this day, I have never had to ask myself “what if?” Well, that is not completely true. I have asked myself what if I had ignored that terrible direction from the casting director. But that aside, I have no nagging questions. What’s more, in my self-talk I made a huge statement about my value. I believed then as I do now that I am a leading actor and not a ‘go get help’ player.
Next…Living with Depression: The final chapter