BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Reality Check Please

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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Reality CheckSo I was buying a car last week. As many of you well know, it can be a bit of a grind, but there’s that swell of relief that comes once the terms have been agreed upon and the conversation with the salesperson is allowed to ease off the throttle. With all the “Who are you’s,” and “What do you do’s,” exhausted—as well the ubiquitous credit check that pretty much disallows me from lying about my occupation—talk of showbiz was pretty much unavoidable. And because it’s Southern California, everybody has a Hollywood connection or a story.

While the piles of required paperwork were readied for signatures, the handsome sales dude leaned back and shared. And what do you know? Once upon a time, he’d been actor. Moved all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles to realize his dreams of you know what.

“Really?” I said, trying not to sound too mocking in my lack of surprise. As if I’d never heard that before—let alone the tsunami of excuses as to why he ended up in a neatly pressed dress shirt and tie selling cars to make a living.

I wondered what rationale he was about to lay on me. Was it because showbiz is a who-you-know game and he never got the breaks? Or would it be the one about the agents or managers who just didn’t get him? Judging by his age and good looks, he might’ve achieved his dream if he hadn’t kept getting beat out for parts by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Daniel Day Lewis, and Brad Pitt.

Or maybe—just maybe, he was going to blame some girl he got pregnant and his ne’er-do-well career was flushed due to adult-onset parenthood.

“What happened?” I finally asked.

“I sucked,” the handsome salesman said flatly.

I let loose an uncontrolled, spontaneous belly laugh. Honest and wonderfully astonished by his reality check.

“Know what? I haven’t heard that one,” I finally said.

“It’s true,” he smiled. “In Vancouver I was something.”

“You were big there?” I chimed.

“I was. Then I came down here and realized I just wasn’t very good.”

As I write this, it’s a few days later and I’m still warmed by the man and his simple honesty. I mean, I can’t calculate the number of wannabes and never-beens I’ve encountered along my dubious career, and like I said, everybody has a story, most of which are sad excuses for having never touched that star they so desired. Over years and years, I can count on maybe two or three fingers how many times somebody has painted himself with such a starkly honest brush.

“I wanted to be a screenwriter,” a schoolteacher once told me. “But there’s this weird part of the job I eventually discovered. You actually had to know how to write.”

Then there was this old hardware biz pal who’d once dreamed of a career in production design.

“I have the talent. I know I do. Probably way more developed than most of the hacks I see working today,” said my hardware buddy. “But what they have that I don’t is the desire to do any job for anybody anywhere to get my foot in the door and keep it there until someone recognizes that I’m the guy. That’s a drive I don’t have. I realized that about me. And so good on them that do.”

Before tag lines were even known as tag lines, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry had himself some serious winners. My favorite being a bit of dialogue from Magnum Force, where right after Lt. Briggs (played masterfully by the great Hal Holbrook) is killed by a car bomb originally meant for Callahan. Eastwood delivers the line in a trademark whisper:

“Man’s got to know his limitations.”

Now please. I’m not suggesting we should all be so personally aware that we cap our ambition with a weight too heavy to lift. But there’s a significant stream of showbiz wannabes and near-comers who’d be a helluva lot happier, let alone sober, if they had a more accurate vision of themselves and the square millimeter of tiny real estate they occupy in the food chain.

Way back in the day when I was still a pup in the game, I had an actress girlfriend who’d just wound up half a season as a fourth-on-the-call-sheet regular on a just-cancelled TV series. Her role was neither memorable in dimension nor performance. Yet there I was at her side as she met with her manager for the first time since the network had formally killed the series.

“This is the best thing that could happen to us,” croaked her manager, who’d chain-smoked enough cigarettes to lower her register to someplace south of Tom Waits. “Now that you’re free of your TV commitment—and with your recent exposure—you’re gonna be competing for roles with Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep.”

I recall this as one of the biggest lines of bullshit I’d ever heard. Before the ligaments in my jaw had gone completely slack, I glanced left to check what was sure to be an equally gobsmacked expression on my girlfriend’s face. Instead, she was beaming and full-on basking in the glow of a spotlight she would never know. The career that lay ahead of her was real and scalable. Full of possibilities if she could ever supply herself with some realistic goals and the tools to attain them. Instead, she was sucking back her manager’s hokum like it was green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. The froggy old bat might as well had told my girlfriend that overnight she’d grown fairy wings. That all that was left for the doe-eyed actress to realize her dreams was to flap her feathers and fly.

I long ago lost touch with that girlfriend. I haven’t a glimmer where she landed or how softly. But I did recently meet this very chill car salesman with a perspective that I can wholly respect.

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