It’s the summer of 1978. I drive from New York to LA to try to make it big as an actor. I camp out at my friend Karen’s one-room apartment near Paramount Studio for a few days, then her married boyfriend shows up. I move into a few Hollywood flophouses before I find a studio apartment in Burbank. The high point of my day becomes a trip to my bank to use their free blood pressure machine just to make sure I’m still alive. Unlike New York where you can make rounds and go to open acting calls, in LA you have to wait for your agent to set up appointments. I call my agent repeatedly. The secretary takes my number. He doesn’t call back. After several weeks of roaming the endless shopping malls, hanging out at the local library and hitting every health food store in the Valley, I’ve had enough. I call Karen in tears. “My career is dead. I want to go home.”Karen swears me to secrecy and then she whispers, “Come to the Breakdown Club.”
Finally, a club for people on the verge like me. I flash on a roomful of frustrated actors sobbing and pounding pillows, letting it all hang out because they can’t get a job. But Karen sets me straight. She tells me the group illegally obtains the cast breakdowns of all movies and TV shows being cast each day, then they try to get auditions for themselves. This is against the law. But we have no choice if we want to get the inside scoop on what’s auditioning. Agents pay a fee for this service, but actors are forbidden to buy them or have access to them. That’s why this secret cadre has gone searching for inside information on the black market.
We assemble in a storage room over someone’s garage on the Sunset Strip. I skulk up some rickety stairs stepping over stacks of old newspapers and bottles weed killer. When I make it to the top I find my self in a dusty old room with a bunch of actors sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs set around a grubby picnic table. They are reading and making notes.
A guy in a Hawaiian shirt sits at the head of the table with a sheaf of papers in his hands. I go up to him and whisper. “Karen sent me” and slip him five dollars. He motions for me to take a seat and hands me a sheet of paper. I find out that Mork and Mindy is casting for the role of Mork’s cousin Ork-“25, a loveable alien, should be able to do handsprings”. Next.
After we finish, a woman in the group with white lipstick who looks like a beat-up Goldie Hawn invites me to a free preview of the EST training. “It will help you get work,” she assures me.
As soon as we walk into the LA Coliseum, a black woman with a shaved head and a ring through her nose buttonholes me. “Hi, I’m Lean Bacon. Do you want to change your life?”
She tells me since she took the training she has won every major award in show business except an Academy Award. She promises I will follow in her footsteps if I sign up for the next seminar. How can I refuse?
The next day at breakdown club I see a casting call for an updated version of Li’l Abner called “Women’s Lib Comes to Dogpatch.” I phone my agent. The secretary asks how I know about this, “You’re not getting breakdowns, are you? Some actors were arrested for that last week.”
“Oh, no, a friend told me,” I lie.
I get an audition and am a cast in the role with the pathetic name of Sexless Jones. Unfortunately, it conflicts with my EST training. I call Lean and beg for my money back, swearing I’ll do EST as soon as the pilot is over. She finally sends it to me but from then on, she calls me several times a week, “You made a commitment, what’s in the way of your following through?”
When I arrive on the set, I find that the actress playing my sister got the part when she delivered coffee to the producer and he liked the way she laughed. That and her C cups spilling out of her blouse. The Daisy Mae can’t remember her lines and she doesn’t know what blocking is. Gee, I’m glad I knocked myself out getting a BFA at Carnegie Mellon Drama Department so I’d be ready to perform with these heavyweight thespians. I say my three lines, collect my pay, and I’m unemployed again.
A few days later, I see an episode of Charlie’s Angels called Angels Ahoy on breakdowns. They are looking for the role of Lisa Blake, a shy librarian who gets thrown overboard while they Angels are taking a romantic cruise. I call. I read, I’m hired.
I arrive on the set at Twentieth Century Fox at the appointed hour. I report to hair and make-up and find myself wedged in between Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith .
There is total silence in the room. Finally I lean slightly towards the great Jacklyn. “Hi.” More silence, which continues until Cheryl and Jaclyn are called to the set. When they leave the make-up woman tells me. “Don’t take it personal, dear. The Angels are feuding .No one speaks to anyone on this set.”
I sit around till almost midnight. Finally, I’m called to the set. We are in Golden Time now. We’re talking double pay. And I am about to really earn it.
As I come onto the set, the director starts barking commands at me.
“Hurry up. Hit your mark, open the cabin door with your left hand, then turn at a 45 degree angle to the camera, walk forward an hit that mark on the floor, then back up as you say your lines and hit the mark in back of you.”
“But I can’t see it.”
“Don’t talk to me about what you can’t see. We’re paying you. You see it. Then turn to the left at a thirty- five-degree angle, scream loudly, but not too loudly, we don’t want to blow out the sound system. Then crouch in the corner, but make sure you’re in the light. And look scared.”
No problem there. But after repeated attempts to hit all my marks and angles, I still am not making the grade. Finally the director throws down his baseball cap, and says to the camera man. “Where did they get her? Can’t they find me someone who can act?”
Tears sting my eyes. The actor playing my killer puts his arm around me. He gently talks me through the motions. We finally finish around 3 AM.
I collect my large check, but have no future prospects.
I walk Venice Beach that weekend. Someone hands me a flyer. “Are you lonely, fearful, sad. We can help. Come to the Scientology Center and take a free personality test.”
Later that day, I arrive at a white stucco building on Olympic Boulevard that looks like a mini White House. I am ushered into a room to be tested. My counselor proudly tells me this building is earthquake proof, so even if the worst happens Scientology will live on. He has me hold two tin cans connected to a meter. For the next several hours, he asks me the same question.
“What are you doing?”
“Holding tin cans.”
“What are you doing?.”
“Sitting in a chair.”
“What are you doing?”
At the end he tells me I have deep-seated problems but if I write Scientology a five hundred dollar check , they can cure me.
“Do you have your checkbook. We have a class starting in a few hours.”
“No. I’ll have to go get it.”
I bolt out the door and never look back.
When I get home, the phone’s ringing. Karen invites me to a party in Beverly Hills. “They’re selling this fantastic chain letter. All you have to do in invest a hundred dollars and you could become a millionaire.”
I drive to a swanky apartment in Beverly Hills. The hostess is a woman named Sasha who looks like former Miss America Bess Myerson plus about ten pounds of make-up and gold jewelry. There’s French wine and foie gras canapés. The guests are decked out in mink and diamonds. Sasha clinks a crystal goblet with a tiny silver fork.
“Friends thank you so much for coming tonight. Let me say that if you are enjoying tonight’s little soiree, it’s all thanks to the Circle of Gold. It’s so simple to make money if you are willing to dive in. All you have to do is buy it from someone here tonight for $50.Then you mail $50 to the top name on the list. Your name will go on the bottom of the list. Then you sell your letter to two people for fifty dollars each. So you can’t lose. When your name reaches the top, there will be hundreds of people sending you $50 bills every day. Just like they do to me. Thanks to the Circle of Gold, I don’t have to work, and neither will you, ever again.” She opens a leather valise. It’s overflowing with fifty dollar bills. “All this can be yours. Will the people selling letters here tonight raise their hands?” Dozens of hands shoot up. “Great, now will the prospective buyers raise theirs.”
My hand floats up. Immediately, sellers surround me. I hash it out with a young guy who says he has a running part on Days of Our Lives. I wonder why he needs to get rich quick. But still he’s cute.
“What if I can’t sell the letter?”
He clasps my hand, “I’ll help you. Just drop by the set.” Sounds good to me.
I lean in close to his perfect face. “When will the money start rolling in?”
He flashes a smile with probably $10,000 worth of dental work at me. “Within the week.”
I hand him $50 and he gives me a stamped envelope addressed to the top name. I put $50 in it. He walks me to the mailbox, and I drop it in. I turn around hoping he’ll escort me to my car or ask me to go clubbing but he’s halfway down the block.
Oh well. Once I’m rich, I’ll be surrounded by lovers. I drive home envisioning my sumptuous new life style, the servants, the oceanfront homes. The jewelry. When I get in, I call everyone I’ve remotely heard of for the next week. No one wants to hit the jackpot. I call the cute guy who sold me the letter. No response. Finally I sell it to a girl in my acting class and the assistant to the casting director who gave me the job on Charlie’s Angels. The next day, they both leave messages that they want their money back. I don’t return the calls. This goes on for a week. By now the casting assistant is saying she’ll make sure I’ll never work in LA and the actress is threatening to sue me. Finally, I decide I need to get some back up. I call Sasha. Her phone’s been disconnected. I call Karen. She’s hyperventilating. All she says is “Get New West Magazine.”
I drive to the nearest newsstand and reach for a copy. Then I see the headline. CIRCLE OF GOLD SCAMMERS BUSTED. Sasha’s picture’s on the cover. I tear open the magazine and read the article. Apparently there was an undercover cop at the party I attended. He collared Sasha and several of her cohorts for running a pyramid scheme. The writer describes some of the other guests, including me. By name. I’m so panicked I don’t even care that he calls me “a prune-faced Joan Rivers look alike.” My eyes are glued to the final sentence. “More arrests are imminent.”
I step on the gas and race back to my apartment. I start throwing all my things into suitcases and garbage bags. I speed to the airport. On the way, I ditch my car and whatever I can’t carry in a friend’s garage. Then I take the next plane to New York. I figure if I cross state lines, I can escape the fuzz.
As we hit cruising altitude, I stumble to the bathroom. I splash the sweat off my face with cold water. Thank God I’m heading back to the mean streets of New York City where there are so many criminals no one will notice me. Still maybe I should consider plastic surgery. I look at my face in the mirror. Then a disturbing thought comes back to haunt me. I take another look. Prune-faced Joan Rivers?