I don’t know what brought this story to mind – I almost never know what brings stories to mind – but I once starred in a movie. We are not talking “Major Motion Picture” here – it was eleven minutes long – but it was a movie and I was the only one in it, which would, by default, make me the star – so, “Letter of the Law” – I starred in a movie. “Spirit of the Law” – not quite Bruce Willis.
Regular readers and avid studiers of the IMBD (“International Movie Data Base”) are aware that I did appear in an actual full-length movie called Cannibal Girls (1973). I additionally performed in a movie entitled The Merry Wives of Tobias Rooke (also in 1973; it was my “breakout” year for movies), but that classic is not listed in the IMDB because it was never completed due to insufficient funding, and was subsequently shelved, by which I mean it was “archived” in the trunk of the director’s car.
All that is preamble, though, chronologically, these events occurred after the story I am about to tell, which would technically make it “postamble”, if that word exists and if it doesn’t it does now.
We set the “Wayback Machine” to a Los Angeles summer in 1966. I am attending the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, becoming a featured player in two of the four scheduled productions, after an enthusiastically-received audition garnered me the only round of applause among more than fifty competitors.
(I was actually penciled to appear in a third production, but was “scratched” due to an already overly full plate.)
So I’m in the Theater Department, and in the building right next door, is the UCLA Film Department. And one day, a film student comes in, he walks up to me and he asks if I would like to appear in a movie he has written and will direct, a classroom assignment which, when completed, will earn him his degree.
He assures me that the film can be shot in one day, on a Sunday, when the Theater Department is closed, and we had no show that night. Was I interested?
I told him yes.
I was twenty-one.
Did I ask why he’d selected me? I did not.
I wanted to be in a movie.
The main thing I remember about this aspiring writer/director was that he was what I’d call “burly.” “Football-player” burly. Maybe not “First String”, but a respectable-looking bench warmer.
Slightly built people like myself reflexively engage in these assessments about strangers all the time as an integral element in our “Fight of Flight” calculations, the label overly flattering in my case, as my M.O. is virtually ninety percent “Flight.”
Despite my “Early Warning System” concern, I nevertheless still said yes. I really wanted to be in a movie.
The storyline was simple:
A homeless person, sleeping on the beach, wakes up, and immediately gathers up his meager belongings. He then starts in on his “work day”, scavenging the beachside refuse bins for “empties”, which he would subsequently exchange at a nearby liquor store for whatever-his-“take”-would-entitle-him-to bottle of inexpensive wine.
DISSOLVE TO: The bum, climbing a hill, where, upon arriving at the summit, he would swig his wine and break into the free-spirited dance of a man who was poor in material possessions but wealthy in personal freedom.
Sounds right up my alley, doesn’t it? And if it doesn’t, hey, I’m a ac-tor.
So, okay. Sunday morning, the guy picks me up in his beat-up sports car, and we drive to the beach, where we “execute the beach scenes.” We then proceed to a nearby liquor store, where I walk in with a sack full of “empties”, and later emerge, my right hand, tightly clasping a coveted bottle of low-priced inebriate.
So far, so good. The director’s happy. I am getting it done.
We then head North up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu. I have never been to Malibu before. It seems like a very long drive. My mind begins to churn. In reality, we were moving to our final “location.” But this would be the same drive, I momentarily imagined, that a burly total stranger might take a person he has picked up on the pretext of starring him in a movie, before delivering him to a secluded area and doing him serious bodily harm.
Actors have colorful imaginations. We can not help what flies into our minds.
Finally, we arrive at our location. Before me stands a moderately high, sandy, vegetation-free bluff. A challenging climb, but hardly impossible. Even for me.
He films me, climbing up the mountain. It is now around noon, and, mistakenly not factored in, the heat of the day – the temperature now in low nineties – is having a debilitating effect. I stop frequently for water breaks. But it’s fine. My progress, though slow, remains steadily upward.
Half way up, the ascent becomes harder. The bluff is now steeper and sandier, causing me to continually take two steps up the hill, and then slide in my homeless person tractionless sandals an equal or greater distance back down.
The day has turned sweltering. I am increasingly losing steam.
I start thinking, “Maybe I can’t do this.” Or, maybe I can’t do this and not die. (There was always a darkish undercurrent to this enterprise. Or maybe it’s just me.) I force myself to keep going. There is no way I can give up. The guy needs his degree.
Finally, as Popeye might say, had his efforts led him to a footrace between sunstroke and heart failure:
“That’s all I can stands; I can’t stands no more.”
After a heroic effort to catch my breath, I inform my director that I’ve had it. I cannot go a step further.
The director urges me not to continue. He needs to finish this film. His grade depends on it.
So I try, pushing myself considerably past my limit. For the sake a guy I never met before in my life. A desperate guy. A desperate, burly guy.
I had scaled the bluff to the eighty percent point, maybe higher, my destination, clearly in sight. Ten more minutes. That’s all it would take. And I’d be Walter Huston Treasure of Sierra Madre-ing it triumphantly on the summit.
The only problem?
I am entirely out of gas.
“That’s it,” I announce. “I can’t make it.”
I was totally spent, my store of energy entirely depleted. For a moment, I stood there in near hallucinogenic confusion, within sight of my objective, but too far for me to reach.
Then, I do this thing, that was embarrassing but totally necessary.
I turn away from the camera…
And I pee.
The director – and I am fully aware of this – continuing to film.
And that was it. The storyline had not been fulfilled as scripted. Instead of a liberated hobo dancing in exultation, the film ended with an exhausted failure, urinating down a mountain.
As we drove back to town, I tried to console him, explaining that, in fact, this was a more unexpected resolution than the upbeat cliché he had originally planned.
No, wait! It now comes back to me that, driving back, it was actually him trying to console me. I don’t console people when I mess up. I brood until they forgive me. What was my memory thinking!
He sincerely believed – and his view was corroborated by his teacher who graded him highly on the movie – that this truly was, in fact, a more emotionally resonating ending – a disappointment in life, disappointed once again.
It turned out I had failed twice that day – once, in the execution of my assignment, and again, in my estimation of my collaborator.
This was no serial killer.
He was a burly artiste.