Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Unique Talent"

When you worked in Canadian show business – I don’t know if it’s the same today, but I suspect it is – you were required to do multiple jobs to make any semblance of what would be considered a living. I once worked three jobs to make $120 a week. I know those were 1970’s dollars, but, you know, you’d like to make more.

Once I was hired to write and perform a series of radio commercials for a Toronto deli called Shopsy’s, which at the time was expanding their product line into supermarkets. I remember one commercial very vividly. I played the voice of “Salisbury steak.” My first line was,

“Hi. I’m Salisbury steak. I come with mushrooms, but they don’t talk.”

Whatever you think of that, the Shopsy’s commercials earned me an offer of a full-time job as a copywriter. I turned the agency down, explaining that I’d rather stay in show business, which was odd, because I wasn’t in show business at the time.

Another avenue of income was acting in television commercials. I got a job on my first audition. It wasn’t a speaking part. It was more a drumming part. I was hired to play a skinny guy with glasses (which I happened to be at the time) who didn’t wear a shirt and pounded out the rhythm in a galley ship while a boatful of galley slaves (also without shirts but with considerably more muscles) rowed. From this, they sold a candy bar. I don’t remember which one.

After my initial success, I continued going to auditions, but I never got hired. I was brought in whenever the commercial called for “a Woody Allen type.” The problem is that in Canada, “a Woody Allen type” isn’t Jewish.

With my hope for employment rapidly fading, I was called in to audition for a Chevrolet commercial, the first of a series of commercials for an expensive, national campaign. If I got the job, it would pay thousands, which, if you know your math, is more than $120 a week.

I was introduced to the director. I recognized his name. He had been the primary director for the long-running TV series My Three Sons. His name was Peter. Peter took to me right away, partly, I think, because I knew who he was.

My audition went so well that a few days later, I was brought back for a second look, which went well too. Other candidates were being eliminated. I remained in the running. I was moving closer and closer to getting the job.

Or so I thought.

Here’s the deal. Chevrolet wanted a “name” to star in their commercial, an actor the audience knew, or at least recognized. By definition, at least to Americans, there are no Canadian “names.” Ipso facto, Chevrolet wanted an American.

Who they wanted specifically was Arnold Stang, a “skinny guy with glasses” American. Arnold Stang was hardly a big “name”, but he was at least semi-famous, maybe a notch and a half below “semi.”

Arnold Stang’s claims to fame were two in number. Years before, on the hugely popular Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, whenever Berle called “Make-up!”, a deadpan Stang would march onstage and whack Berle in the face with an enormous powerful puff. Stang’s other claim to fame was a series of commercials for Chunky chocolate bars, where he over-pronounced the tagline: “Chunky, what a chunk-a chawklit.”

From such moments are careers made.

Chevrolet wanted Arnold Stang to get the job. The problem was that Arnold Stang was American, and this was a Canadian commercial. You see, there was this rule (maybe there still is). The rule stated that you couldn’t hire an American for a Canadian commercial unless it was demonstrated that no Canadian was capable of doing the job.

If no Canadian was found suitable for the commercial, you could then hire the American, bringing him in as a “Unique Talent.”

The tiny glitch for Chevrolet was this:

Earl Pomerantz was suitable for the commercial. (More than suitable. I was really good.)

The production came to a standstill. They didn’t know what to do. There was a Canadian “talent” – Early P. – capable of doing the job, which meant they couldn’t bring in a “Unique Talent” – Mr. Stang – from the United States. And they wanted Mr. Stang.

They brought me in for a third audition, hoping, perhaps, I’d forget what I did at the first two auditions and stink the place up. I didn’t. I could see the conflict contorting the director’s face. His eyes seemed to be pleading,

“Why couldn’t you be worse?”

Finally, they convinced themselves I was, and they gave the job to Arnold Stang.

Years later…

I’m applying for a “Green Card”, granting me permanent residency is the United States and the ability to work here legally. My immigration lawyer advises me that, though there are various criteria for obtaining a “Green Card”, including – lookee there – “Unique Talent”, the safest strategy is to set up a business in the United States, with a business license and a business bank account – everything that would indicate I’m a business – in my case, a television production business.

I do what the lawyer tells me. I am now a business.

Flash Forward: I’m sitting in front of an American Immigration Officer, and he’s studying my application. Everything seems to be in order, he announces, but he has one question. The question is this:

“Why didn’t you apply for your ‘Green Card’ under ‘Unique Talent’?”

(By that time, I had won an Emmy Award and had been nominated for another. “Unique Talent” would by no means have been an unreasonable claim.)

I could have given a “High Road” explanation. I could have said to the Immigration Officer, “You know, I once lost a job I really wanted because of this ‘Unique Talent’ arrangement, and I was not willing to deprive an American writer of an opportunity to work the way I was deprived when I was working in Canada.”

I didn’t say that, because that wasn’t the reason I had applied as a “business” rather than applying under “Unique Talent.” Instead, I told him the truth. My decision was of a practical nature. There was the chance the Immigration Officer might test my “uniqueness”, leading to the risky possibility:

“What if you didn’t think I was funny?”

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