After proposing to Nicole, I decided to attend law school and I was hired to play Justus Ward on the ABC daytime drama General Hospital.
January–nine months after proposing to Nicole, I jumped on a plane and headed to Los Angeles for pilot season. Rather than ship my Corvette, I chose to borrow a car from my friend’s parents. They had an old 1980 Dodge Colt sitting in the garage. The tires were bald; the windshield wipers didn’t work; The passenger side door didn’t work; the radio turned on and off when the car hit a bump in the road; the paint was rough and worn from the front bumper to the rear, and it took about an hour for the car to get up to 55 mph. But the car started every morning, rain or shine.
One morning, I was leaving the gym and bumped into a guy a bit down on his luck. As I entered the parking lot, he offered to wash my windows. I thanked him and told him, “No thank you.” Suddenly his eyes lit up.
“Hey, I know you. You’re a movie star.”
He then looked at the car I was getting into.
“What’s the matter man? Ain’t you been workin’?”
I laughed. But the sad truth was that while I may not have been quite as desperate as that guy, I hadn’t been working. Since leaving the Cosby Show, two years previous, I’d shot two commercials and that was it. I had run through my savings and the reason I was driving my friends hoopdie and not cruising around in my sports car was that I hadn’t been able to afford to ship the car west and I didn’t have the money to rent a car. That old Dodge Colt was a life-saver and I was grateful to my friends for loaning it to me.
The previous summer, the roller-coaster that was my career finally got to me; I’d had enough. I was tired and frustrated and angry. I had done everything I thought I was supposed to have done and yet, my dream still remained sitting in the distance, like a ship anchored just outside the harbor. I could see it, but it wasn’t getting any closer. I had been on the number one rated show on television. I had plunked down thousands of dollars for publicity. I’d done every interview I could. I starred in a feature film. I stood by for a hit Broadway play. I smiled and shook hands and posed for pictures and still I was unemployed and broke. Basically, just where I had started when I was first hired to play Martin Kendall. Actually, that’s not true. I had a beautiful fiance’, a lovely little house, and a future that now certainly included a family. I decided that my days in front of the bright lights were over. I applied to law school, was accepted to Rutgers, and was making plans to begin school the following autumn. In the meantime, though, I figured, I may as well, go on to Los Angeles for pilot season. What could it hurt to give it one last try?
It was around March when Nicole casually asked me, “What will you do if you get a pilot.”
Clearly, I hadn’t really thought things through.
“Well,” I said. “I guess I won’t go to law school.”
When I hung up the phone, I took the financial aid packet from my suitcase and tossed it in the trash.
A few weeks later, I went in to read for a role on the ABC daytime drama, General Hospital. I didn’t think much of it. I had never been a soap opera fan, although I knew of General Hospital. Who hadn’t heard of Luke and Laura? In fact, Genie Francis had briefly been in my acting class in New York. I went in and read. The casting director liked me and asked me to return to read for the producers.
I am fairly certain every actor can tell you about the audition he had, where the director lathered him up one side and down the other. “You were fantastic! You’re the only actor I’ve seen today, who actually connected to the character. Blah blah blah.” After hearing all of that, who wouldn’t leave an audition thinking, “I got this.” The cruelty of show business is that all that sweet talk might mean you can get laid, but it doesn’t mean you are gonna get the job.
I had been in to read for a film, (the name of which escapes me) and the director had said all of that to me and more. So, of course, I was positive that I was going to be hired. I told my agents to thank G.H. but I was moving on.
Around the same time I was discovering that Blair Underwood had been hired for the film, G.H. called back and asked if I was certain I wouldn’t like to just meet the executive producer. I took a deep breath, jumped back into the Dodge and drove back to ABC studios for my callback. As I was headed upstairs to the production offices, Tony Geary, (Luke) jumped on the elevator with me.
“Hello, I’m Tony.”
“You auditioning, Joseph?”
“Break a leg.”
I took meeting Tony Geary in the elevator and discovering that he was a cool guy as an omen: The role of Justus Ward was mine. I just had to show up.
Soon afterward, I read for a comedy pilot about a group of characters who work at a carwash. I was reading for the straight guy. The same day the pilot informed me that they wanted to screen test me, ABC called and wanted to negotiate a test deal for General Hospital. Once again, I was faced with a choice. “Who are you?” I asked myself. “What do you want?”
“I wanted that fucking movie!” I responded.
“Don’t be a smart-ass.” I said to myself. “What are you willing to risk?”
“I want to be on prime-time television.”
“Then you have your answer.”
I told my agents to thank G.H. but I was going to test for the pilot. G.H. offered me more money. I held my ground. G.H. then offered to read me in second position, meaning they would give the sit-com first dibs on me. I hadn’t expected that.
The screen tests were the same afternoon a few hours apart. I was to test for the sit-com and then drive across town and test for the soap opera. My agents promised that they would call me as soon as they heard anything. I have never driven more slowly in my life. I tried to make every red light, drove under the speed limit, and came to a full and complete stop at all stop signs. Still, no word by the time I pulled into ABC studios.
I was assigned a dressing room and waited my turn to read with Felecia Bell, the actress who would be my love interest. The call came about 20 minutes into my wait. I had been hired by the sit-com and was free to leave ABC. I thanked the producers and ran to my funky Dodge in the parking lot.
But something didn’t feel right. I should’ve been happier than I was. I feared I had made a huge error in judgment. The next morning, I got on the phone with my friend Victoria Rowell, who was then starring on The Young and the Restless and had played my ex-wife on the Cosby Show. Victoria was kind, but she didn’t mince words. When I was finished telling my story she caught a quick inhale of breath, as if she had stubbed her toe.
“Oooh. I wouldn’t have done that.”
“Yep. That’s what I thought. What can I do now?”
“Call your agents and ask them to see if G.H. will still test you. If they haven’t made their decision, maybe they’ll see you today.”
I hung up the phone, called my agents and crossed my fingers. An hour later, my agents called back and said that the producers would read me, but I had to wait a week because Felecia was going on vacation. I knew there was a reason I loved Victoria, I mean aside from her being stunningly beautiful. And it was a good thing she had been so clear headed. The afternoon following my first rehearsal for the sit-com, I received a call from the executive producer apologizing, but saying they were writing my character out of the pilot. I would be paid, but, well, I was fired.
Next…Marriage and medication