Spring 2008: Coda

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Mike Sager 78C

Dan Winters/Special

Almost Famous

By Mike Sager 78C

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After you’ve cried enough, you go for a walk.

That’s what Lynn does. It’s a little ritual she’s evolved over the years for times like this, when she’s feeling rejected, anonymous, totally freaking worthless. She begins to raise her abject self from the sofa, making mental note of her loathsomeness, her breach of faith. She has broken her own cardinal rule: never let this damn town get you down.

Buck up, she resonates to the four corners of her soul, managing to achieve a seated position. The sofa was among the splurges occasioned by the long national run of her husband’s Mercury Sable commercial. “Make it a red one, Gordo,” said Steve, playing an upstart yuppie exec. People still recognize him on the street. “Do I know you from college?” they ask.

Cover of 'Revenge of the Donut Boys'

Lynn fingers a wispy lock of chestnut hair behind her ear, wipes the moisture from her cheeks. She is beautiful when she cries. That’s what Steve thinks. Lynn doesn’t like to think about it. She hates makeup, carrying a purse, looking in the mirror. She refuses to bleach her hair back to its childhood blonde. When someone admires her dress, she’ll say she’s wearing the wrong slip. When people scrutinize her, take her picture, roll a camera, she gets extremely uncomfortable. For years she kept herself camouflaged underneath fifteen extra pounds.

Right now, however, the issue she’s grappling with isn’t beauty. Nor is it the paradox of someone so painfully shy, so self-conscious, yearning to be twelve feet high on a movie screen. There are thousands of beautiful women in Hollywood; many, no doubt, have a very strange and special relationship with their looks. Right now the issue is sanity. Lynn must concentrate. Pull things into perspective. Remember to breathe. She flicks the remote, kills the tube, mumbles something to Steve, up in his loft, clicking away on the computer.

Lynn hits the elevator—three, two, lobby. She waits for the shudder: the mechanical one at the bottom of the shaft; the biological one at the bottom of the tears. Appointment. Disappointment. Only three little letters of difference.

Ding, the elevator door slides open. She ventures forth, wearing shades and tennies, a trace of lipstick left from this morning’s audition, for the role of yet another wisecracking but earnest young sitcom mom. It is spring in Hollywood, pilot season, a time when the earth is blooming and television shows are being born. Dozens of actors will be auditioned to play a sitcom sidekick. Hundreds will read for an hour-long drama with an ensemble cast. One thousand will be seen to find the perfect guy to run a Weedwacker for a nanomoment in a thirty-second commercial. Thousands more won’t ever get in the door. To land a job, you have to get an audition. To get an audition, you pretty much have to have an agent. To get an agent, you have to have a job; they want to see you perform before they take you on. The agent who handles Steve’s work for commercials receives fifty unsolicited photos every day. In eighteen years, Lynn’s theatrical agent has signed only one person on the strength of an unsolicited photo; you wouldn’t recognize his name. According to the Screen Actor’s Guild, 40 percent of its 80,000 members make less than $3,000 a year pursuing their chosen field. There is no accounting of unpaid hopefuls. Though you’ve never heard of them, Lynn Clark and Steve Bean are among the lucky few. Over the past few years, they’ve grossed a combined $100,000 annually. Of course, Ted Danson used to make that much in about five minutes of an episode of Cheers.

So the calls go out, and the actors do their hair, change and rechange their clothes, try to look the part as described in the character breakdowns that come grinding out of special wireless printers in the agencies: “affable wise guy,” “Chris Elliot type,” “feisty young mom,” “the kind of woman who jogs and eats granola every morning.” They read a few lines, smile, try to act as if they don’t really need this job. Then they go home, wait, try to forget it even happened.

It’s been a little dry lately for Lynn.

Well, very dry.

She didn’t think it was going to be like this. Last February she did Friends, and she was sure a breakthrough was at hand. Then . . . nothing.

This morning, on a sunny day in mid-May, almost three months since Friends, Lynn took out her calendar and counted exactly how many auditions she’s done this season. How many jobs she didn’t get. She knew it was a bad idea, but she did it anyway. When you choose to be an actor, you start a war inside yourself, and everything after that just serves to escalate the hostilities. It is a battle between reality and fantasy, work and unemployment, fame and obscurity; between the affirming exhilaration of applause and the paralyzing fear of failure. Sixty-eight auditions: zero jobs. She could kick herself. Why count?

Lynn cuts her eyes to the rows of gleaming brass mailboxes. She stands a moment in the marshmallow-pink glow of the open foyer, leaning in her mind first toward the mail, then toward the front gate. In the air is a familiar scent of laundry lint, chlorine, sun-baked stucco, smog. Birds chirp, palms rustle, a car alarm bleats. Once Lynn looked in her mailbox and found a thick envelope. Santa Barbara had made it to Europe in syndication. Lynn had appeared on the soap as Lily Light, teen evangelist. There were forty-eight checks inside, each for $167. It felt like hitting the lottery.

She chooses the gate, scuffles double time down the steps. As always, she looks for her Honda Civic, making sure it’s still there. The Civic replaced her ’64 Dart, assembled the year she was born. Lynn still has the Dart, a sort of monument to feast and famine. The Honda was purchased after her last pilot, for Banner Times. Retooled and recast, the show was called Hearts Afire, and had a regular prime-time slot. The star of Banner Times, Jeff Foxworthy, has his own new show.

To date, Lynn has done four pilots, three movies of the week (two starring Raquel Welch), a Columbo movie, recurring roles on Santa Barbara and Days of Our Lives, and an episode of Murder, She Wrote (with Steve, playing a couple). In ’92, she starred in Grapevine, an ensemble cast twenty-something sitcom on CBS that paved the way for Friends. She has done a handful of stage plays in L.A. She’s been called “beguiling and sensual” by the Daily Variety. She was once the answer to 71 Across in the crossword puzzle of the Los Angeles Times TV-listings supplement. Also in her credits are long stints as a waitress. If you add up the hours . . . well, it’s best not to get into that.

Lynn hits the pavement, turns left, arms levering in a power walk. Heel, toe, elbows and fists, one foot in front of the other. Lynn got into power walking at the suggestion of a personal trainer when she finally decided to lose the extra weight. Fifteen pounds later, she got Seinfeld. In her first episode, she met Jerry at a dinner party. In her second, they went away together for a weekend. Then the producers decided it would be better if Jerry played the field.

The Seinfeld stint raised her profile, however, and Lynn eventually landed the part on Grapevine. Set in Miami, written and directed by David Frankel (Miami Rhapsody), the show suffered the mixed blessing of critical acclaim. After four episodes, it was history.

Heel, toes, elbows and fists, one foot in front of the other. Lynn keeps her eyes straight ahead, focusing on the fuzzy distance. A little past two in the afternoon in North Hollywood, California, means a little past five on the East Coast. That’s where the producers of a pilot for an hour-long political drama called The Monroes are holed up at this moment. On location outside Richmond, Virginia, in the final days before shooting the show—a sort of Dynasty-goes-to-Washington, starring William Devane—the producers have decided to replace an actress. The character has three lines; she’s the faithful wife of a philandering congressman. Lynn was at the studio for a different audition when she happened to bump into the casting director. She put Lynn on the tape of prospective replacements.

Now it is two days later, and Lynn still hasn’t heard anything. When you’re actor, no news is not good news. If Lynn had been chosen, someone would have called by now. It was this realization that drove her to her sofa, her calendar, this walk.

Heel, toes, elbows and fists, one foot in front of the other. Just to the south, Lynn can see the Santa Monica Mountains. On the other side is the land of Hollywood. The metaphor is hackneyed but inescapable. Thousands of aspiring actors like Lynn and Steve live here in the San Fernando Valley, a traffic-choked suburban sprawl of stucco apartment complexes and cookie-cutter strip malls, incorporated into patches called Studio City, North Hollywood, Burbank and Toluca Lake, the rents lower the farther you get from the mountains.

Sometimes, when Lynn looks to the mountains, she imagines herself as a character in the Felliniesque movie of her career quest, a tiny figure in a panoramic shot, halfway up the face. The rocks are slippery. She clings and claws. Steve is off to one side, as are many, many others, some higher, some lower, all of them dangling by threads.

She has another audition at five, so Lynn makes two quick circuits around a nearby park. She loves the park, all the green; it reminds her of her home, the tiny burg of La Plata, Maryland. But it also hold bad memories. Lynn arrived in town nine years ago, on the same day as her graduation from the drama department at Cargenie Mellon University. Though she had been flown out for a screen test, she didn’t get the part. Two months later, the same folks gave her Lily Light. Six months later, Lily walked out the door after Christmas dinner and never returned to Santa Barbara. Lynn’s sudden termination by the new writers caught her by surprise. She was 22 and nearly broke. She had to get a job. One afternoon, cutting through this park with her new green waitress apron and a Hamburger Hamlet manual in her arms, she ran into the makeup woman from Santa Barbara. Had Lynn owned a sofa at the time, she surely would have gone to it.

Quick shower, change clothes, another audition in Burbank, another performance of her life: I don’t really need this job. Then back home. Lynn dons her favorite ratty T-shirt, slumps into the sofa. Steve arrives two hours later.

“How’re you feeling, hon?” he calls out tentatively, treading down the short hallway toward the living room. He too has had his ups and downs in the past eight years. Steve Bean has been a guest star on Cheers, Coach, Married . . . With Children, Dave’s World, Burke’s Law and many others. He’s been a stand-up comic; and MTV veejay; a regular and a staff writer on Tim Conway’s Funny America and Not Necessarily the News; a member of the comedy troupe the Groundlings, a proving ground for Saturday Night Live. He’s performed a Kabuki-Hasidic adaptation of Macbeth in an empty swimming pool. He’s done more than fifty national commercials. As only 1 percent of actors get about 80 percent of the work in commercials, he’s pretty successful. His agent credits his improvability, his rubber face, his “fun-time, talk-fast, real-guy, Everyman look.”

Several years ago, Steve won a part as a regular on Ann Jillian. Before the series hit NBC, however, he was replaced. So deep was his funk that he considered quitting.

For maybe five seconds. More than anything else, Steve wants to perform. He must perform. He’s compelled to perform. To be watched, photographed, filmed. What a job! You say your lines and people clap.

Instead of quitting, Steve got a therapist and an audition coach. Lynn has the same complement of professional help. Both of them worry about telling this to people outside Hollywood, lest you think they’re fruitcakes or whiners. But the fact is, they’re playing a rough game in a rough town. Nothing makes sense; nothing is real; the rules change as you go along. You walk into a room; they dismiss you. They don’t know you, and they don’t know what they want. All they know is what they don’t want. It’s usually you. For each role awarded, says Lynn’s agent, there are probably twenty other actors who could do it just as well. A search for the words aspiring actor in the Los Angeles Times database gives some idea of the toll: Sexually abused by agent. Bilked by phony talent agency. Files suit against Oprah for not including her in segment on “Hollywood Hopefuls.” Guns down three to avenge rent dispute. Shoots self in mouth with pistol while rehearsing Lethal Weapon scene in acting class.

Like Lynn, Steve looks at the Santa Monica Mountains and registers the metaphor. But as he is the kind of guy who thinks of the glass as half full, he sees that he and Lynn are better off than most. They seem to be making progress. Getting there. Almost there. Almost famous. They just have to stick it out. Someday, he hopes, he believes, all their years of struggle will be reduced to one amusing paragraph in a magazine cover story occasioned by some fabulous success.

“Hi, hon,” says Lynn, basking in the eerie light of the tube. She is screening a favorite tape, William Shatner doing a dramatic recitation of Elton John’s song “Rocket Man.” Because of her business, Lynn prefers watching documentaries, movies—anything but regular TV. Watching those shows is like revisiting her failures, seeing someone else performing roles she auditioned for. She was almost Jennifer Aniston in Friends. She was almost Julia Duffy in a number of shows. The Shatner tape, on the other hand, is a hoot. Split images of three Shatners, posing, overacting. “I’m a rocket, man,” he recites in beatnik voice. So rich and famous is Shatner, so bad is his performance, it has a weird calming effect on Lynn, proof of the madness of her world.

Steve peers through the dark at his wife. “What’s wrong with your face?”

They hustle to the bathroom. The vanity lights over the mirror are harsh. Lynn’s face is mottled. Her eyes are beginning to swell shut. She felt a little itchy, but . . . She checks her arms, her legs, her butt. Hives!

The waterworks begin anew. Steve hugs her, holding herself back a little, lest she be contagious. He too is up for a pilot, Cleghorne!, starring Ellen Cleghorne from Saturday Night Live.

The phone rings; they let the machine pick up. Then they hear a familiar voice. It’s Lynn’s agent. She got the part in The Monroes. “You’re going to Richmond tomorrow, sweetheart,” he says.

“Look at that pile of beef!” announces Steve Bean, indicating with both hands a corned-beef sandwich that has to be six inches high. Steve speaks like a guy in a commercial, narrating his life as it goes, or maybe like a guy who has a very strange and special relationship with his voice, wrapping his mouth quickly but carefully around each syllable, pausing a millisecond between words, projecting to the back of the house, even at close range.

It’s late in June now; the Valley is arid. Steve is on a stool at the Formica counter overlooking the kitchen sink, which is stacked with dishes, orderly but unwashed. Lynn is running around the apartment, a few degrees below frantic, gathering props and costumes, making a pile by the door. The Onstage Company, a North Hollywood theater group of which she is president, is in final rehearsals for a showcase. She wrote her piece, called “The Working Actor,” with two other women, based on their experiences in the food-service industry.

“Have some of this nice protein, hon,” intones Steve.

“I don’t know,” says Lynn. She’s smoking a Marlboro Light, from the first pack she’s bought in two years.

“Come on, it’s from Jerry’s,” he coaxes, separating the halves, picking up one, mugging. “Protein and a good ol’ dose of Jewish self-esteem,” he announces, opening his rubber mouth extra wide, going in for a bite.

Lynn grimaces. “I’m gonna put this in my car.”

Believe it or not, things are rosy around here today, the expectant butterflies of impending performances having replaced the angst of freaking worthlessness. Besides the showcase this weekend, Lynn starts filming The Monroes later this month. Not only was the pilot picked up but her part was upgraded from recurring role to regular. For the next twelve weeks, she will be a prime-time network star.

Steve goes on this weekend for the first time with the main company at Acme Comedy Theatre. And, at least for now, he is back in the running for Cleghorne! It’s been a long haul. First he did the audition, then four callbacks. Then the producers gave him the role in the pilot. Then they axed him. Then they hired him back. Then the pilot was picked up by Warner Bros., but Steve wasn’t. The network auditioned every semiknown comedian in town. Then they decided to invite Steve back for a screen test. He’s waiting for that call now.

In the meantime, Steve’s trying his best not to think about it, focusing instead on his writing—the stuff for Acme and also a spoof feature film, T3: Terminate Her Too.

Steve climbs upstairs to his loft, a five-by-ten foot nook overlooking the living room. He sits at the computer, surrounded by his collection of kitsch. Gumby, Bullwinkle, Donnie from New Kids on the Block. A Gene Autry lunch box, a bumper sticker from his dad’s race for town councilman: ELECT IRWIN LEVY.

Steve Bean’s real name is Levy. Steve explains that he changed it because people constantly mispronounced it. And then there’s a long story about a guy who found a bean in his apple-peach cobbler. Suffice it to say that the first time he did stand-up, at the beginning of the comedy-club wave of the early ’80s, he used Steve Bean, and he killed them, and that has been his stage name ever since.

Steve is the middle child of Irwin and Dottie Levy—and industrial engineer and a schoolteacher—of Providence, Rhode Island. Lynn is the eldest of four born to Randy and Janice Clark—a retired postal worker and a real estate agent—of La Plata. They describe similar upbringings: loving parents, extended families, high achievement, early feelings of specialness, a knack or a yen for being the center of attention.

Steve likes to say that his desire for the spotlight was the result of his very birth: as the only son and first grandson in a close Jewish family, he was put on a pedestal. For years, at home and at temple, when everyone toasted L’Chaim, young Steve, whose Hebrew name is Chaim, thought they were toasting him. “It’s very difficult to try and live up to all that unconditional praise heaped upon you as a child,” says Steve. “If you’re in a position where the understanding is that you are already the best simply because you exist, then how do you live up to that feeling of specialness as years go by?”

Lynn was a shy, quiet kid, a bookworm, reading Nancy Drew on Gram’s sofa while her brothers romped outside. She took piano and singing lessons and joined 4-H, which sponsored public-speaking contests and demonstration days. Each time she was to perform, Lynn suffered nausea, tremors, stomachaches, such dread that she was always just shy of too sick to go on.

Steve found the answer to his special need for recognition in a high school production of The Crucible. Soon he was playing lead roles, and all the girls had a crush on him. In the eleventh grade, he won an award for best actor at the New England Drama Festival.

Lynn’s first high school play was also The Crucible. When she read for the part, her teacher remembers, “it was phenomenal; it was like the air around her changed the minute she started speaking.” In her senior year, Lynn was one of thirty students to win the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts’ national talent search.

For Lynn acting wasn’t so much a matter of gaining attention. “I loved the release,” she says. “I always got these fiery characters. Abigail in The Crucible is constantly screaming and hallucinating. And I played Louise in Gypsy, and I got to slap my mother in the face. I guess I was always so self-conscious and so insecure about expressing my opinions or feelings about things that I needed an outlet.

“I think a lot of it has to do with Catholicism, just feeling the fear of God and shaming you about your individuality so you’ll behave. I guess it’s the same thing with my looks. It’s shameful to dwell on beauty. So I don’t. But when I’m acting, I can be someone else. I feel free.”

Both Lynn and Steve attended Carnegie Mellon, though not at the same time. One of the oldest drama schools in America, Carnegie’s is a notch below Yale’s and Julliard’s. Alumni include Jack Klugman, Laura San Giacomo, Ted Danson, Steven Bochco and Holly Hunter.

Enrollment in Carnegie amounts to being chosen, recognized, treated like a member of the company, like a working actor as opposed to an aspiring one. When you graduate, you leave feeling like you’ve paid your dues, earned a shot at the big time. The problem is, no one else knows. Entering the real world, you have to start all over again.

Steve lasted only two years at Carnegie. A few days after he left, he landed in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Stage Company.

After two seasons (performing in Waiting for Godot and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, among other productions), Steve started doing stand-up with a fellow Carnegie dropout, Chris Zito. For the next six years, Zito and Bean, based first in Pittsburgh, then in Boston, worked regularly in fifteen states. They used props and costumes, wore fake noses, sang send-up songs. Skits included “Night of the Bill Bixby Clones” and “Attack of the Headless Barbies.” The Boston Globe described them as “provocatively original . . . among Boston’s top comics.”

Eventually, Zito and Bean went their separate ways. Steve drove to Hollywood to seek his fortune in August 1987, the year after Lynn arrived. The couple met the following April at a showcase mounted by Carnegie alumni. Steve was performing. Lynn had come with another alum, who was by now an agent.

“That was a night to remember,” says Steve. “I got an agent and a wife.”

“Of course, it took a while before we actually dated,” says Steve sitting poolside, wearing shades.

“Maybe this should be off the record,” says Lynn. She is also in shades, stretched out on a chaise lounge.

“It’s all true,” says Steve.

“Maybe we could tone down the heavy-drinking aspect.”

“Everyone will understand,” says Steve. “You were nervous. You were on your first date with me.”

“Hey, you! You Hollywood stars!” It is Lynn’s brother, Donnie calling out from the house. “Can I interrupt your exclusive poolside interview a minute. We’re going to get steamed crab. You guys gonna eat some?”

“Are you kidding?” Lynn says, laughing. “Get a bushel for just me.”

It’s late in July, and Lynn and Steve are visiting the Clarks in La Plata. Just an hour south of Washington, D.C., it’s a place George F. Will once called “that village of a few thousand souls, [where] folks raise tobacco and soybeans and children.” Lynn tries to make it back at least four times a year.

As it looks right now, barring acts of God—or of producers, directors or studio execs—Lynn and Steve will be returning to Los Angeles in a few days, both to begin work on new television series for the fall lineup.

Just before he left, the network called once again about the Cleghorne! part. Arriving at the studio, figuring they were going to give him the job, Steve found five other candidates. They all sat together in a small room. It was obvious to Steve that the network still had no idea what it wanted for the part. The casting people had collected a handsome guy, a bordering-on-effeminate guy, a Jewish character-looking guy and another affable wise-guy type like Steve.

The actors read, then waited. At 5:30 they were told to go home.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday: no word. Steve stayed in bed for half a day, then cried on Lynn’s shoulder, the little ritual he’s evolved over the years. Then, on Tuesday, his agent called. None of the guys had been chosen. The network wanted a “name” for the part.

OK, fine! Steve thought. That’s it. Over. Done with. He could finally let it go. He had gotten the pilot on his thirty-fifth birthday. He’d been jerked around for almost four months now. The network wanted a name. That was it. Another of the many decisions in life that were completely out of his control. He decided to go to the movies. He chose Under Siege, had a grand time watching lots of people—every single one of them an actor—get blown away.

He returned to the apartment at six. The phone rang. It was his agent: “They’re considering you again. You’ll have an answer tomorrow morning at eleven.”

“You know something?” Steve said, everything welling up, his voice catching. “I don’t care anymore. I don’t give a shit. I have let it go. If it happens, great; if it doesn’t, great. I just don’t care.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Steve spoke again. “What time did you say you’d call?”

His agent phoned at ten of eleven the next day. “You have it. Be there at eleven.”

Steve got down to the studio about a half hour later, driving at breakneck speed over the mountain to Hollywood. The whole cast was sitting around a table, reading the script, and Steve rushed in when they were on the page before his scene.

He took the empty seat at the table, out of breath. He turned to his part, spoke his first line.

And then everyone in the room—Ellen Cleghorne, the producer, the director, the rest of the cast—everyone looked up, registered who was reading. There, in the chair was Steve Bean, the guy they had started with, who’d done the pilot, who’d been screwed around so famously, so typically, by a bunch of suits who never, ever knew what they wanted in the first place. Spontaneously, everyone at the table began to clap. It was long, sustained, heavenly applause. And it was all just for Steve.

Now, in the waning days of their summer vacation, Lynn and Steve are kicking back in La Plata. This, to Lynn, is the purest drug, being home in the embrace of her family. Her Hollywood pipe dream is to leave Hollywood. To do a series for a couple of years and make enough to buy a house on the water in Maryland, close to her family. She’d buy a piano. Read. And when she and Steve had kids, she’d be home as much as possible. Of course, they’d have a second place in Hollywood.

“Perhaps we can skip the first-date story,” says Lynn, sitting by the pool. “The producers of The Monroes are going to think I’m a drunk.”

“Tsk, tsk, oh, Lynn,” says Steve. “Whatever you wish, hon.”

At one point, around the time of her funk last fall, Lynn didn’t know if she wanted to act anymore. She didn’t know if she even liked acting. She had such bad stage fright, she was messing up her auditions. She always felt sick before going on. And when she was actually acting, she felt totally incompetent. It was just painful. She felt so judged, so ineffectual, so loathsome and, when she wasn’t working, totally freaking worthless.

Then something happened that had nothing to do with Hollywood or acting or fame. It had to do with her little sister.

Christy was 18 at the time, had a wonderful fiancé. They’d been together since high school. Larry was 21, a great guy. Then, one night, he was leaving a bar. There was an electric sign outside and a puddle on the ground beneath it. Larry slipped and fell against the sign. He was electrocuted.

When that happened, Lynn says, “suddenly, I began to think, like, what does all this matter? Hollywood is meaningless. It’s all about exterior and status and how people see you, and it’s a big fucking popularity contest. Who needs that?”

So it was that Lynn set about changing her priorities. She read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Artist’s Way, any book that seemed in sync with her mood. She bought pots of flowers for her balcony, became president of the Onstage Company, started writing some stuff she could perform herself. Once upon a time, when she didn’t have an audition, she would fill her days with tasks and errands. She’d go to the dry cleaner, recycle the papers, wash the car. Now she is trying hard to remember that life is something you do, not something you watch or wait for. If nothing’s happening, she’ll go down to Santa Monica and ride her bike along the beach. Or she’ll go to a museum, or drive up to Mulholland, just sit there for a half hour, admiring the view.

“Before, it was like I was sitting there on the sofa, waiting for my life to happen, thinking, If I only get this job, then I will be a worthy human being. But you know what? I’m finally starting to see that life is all about the process, not the product.”

“I’m very impatient with myself,” adds Steve. “There’s always that big question: When am I going to be famous? When am I going to be rich? When am I going to be happy? When am I going to be satisfied? When, when, when, when? It can be toxic.”

“So this is the idea,” says the exec from TBS, sitting behind her big desk, looking up at Steve and his audition partner, an actress he’s never met. “A guy and a gal, dinner and a movie, OK?”

“OK,” Steve says tentatively. The actress says nothing.

“Look,” says the exec. “You know the show Friends? Well, this is like Friends, but with a movie in it. In other words, you’re kind of cooking dinner, hosting a movie, but after a while, people won’t tune in to the movie; they’ll be tuning in to see your relationship.”

“I see,” says Steve.

“But I don’t want comedians for this job. What I’m looking for is a comedy team like Abbott and Costello.”

“Ummm-hmmm,” says Steve. He smiles even wider. Then, hoping to showcase his talent for improv, he says, “So, how are Abbot and Costello doing? I heard they had a very busy pilot season. Maybe you could get them for this gig.”

The executive’s face darkens. A deep, black thundercloud of ire. “You got a problem with Abbott and Costello? Lou Costello was my grandfather.”

It’s October now. Steve is gone from Cleghorne! From the beginning, he’d felt out of place. The lone white guy in a Jeffersons-like sitcom, he played Ellen’s business partner. With each week of his six-week stint, he had fewer lines. Finally, the network decided to ax the office setting entirely. In the meantime, he’s gone back to auditioning for commercials. His first shot was an Alpo ad. The gist of the message was that changing your pooch’s brand of dog food might give him diarrhea. Steve didn’t get that. But he did land two voice-overs for a cell-phone company and a Sparkle paper-towel commercial. He’s happy for the work, but, well, need he explain? Two weeks ago, he was a series regular. It was a horrible show, but it was a show. He’s trying to be philosophical.

“One of the weird things in the aftermath of Cleghorne! was that here I had worked with these people for three months, and when my part was canceled, only one person in the cast called me.

“I let that slide. Because that’s the way it is. And then, three weeks later, I get an autographed cast photo in the mail—‘To Steve, Best Wishes.’ And I was like, this is really insulting. You don’t have time to call me, but you’ll send me a glossy photo as if I’m a fan or something. I feel that it was a nice gesture. But the reality of it . . . well, it hurt.

“My feeling is that when you have a success or victory in your career, everybody is very willing and able to share in that, to call you up and say, ‘How wonderful.’ But when you have a loss, then it’s like a disease, and that disease is contagious, and they don’t want to touch it because they might get it. The next time I do a show, I’m going to be the boss of it myself. I’m going to write, produce and act in it. There’s no way I can live without performing, so I’m just gonna do it myself.”

Joining Steve in the ranks of the newly unemployed is Lynn. The Monroes, airing Thursday night on ABC, opposite Seinfeld, had been touted by the Los Angeles Times as “a smartly written Dallas on the Potomac that packs enough melodrama in its premiere to nourish an entire season.” Though Lynn’s character, Ann, had only three lines in the first episode, her part became more and more substantial. In a family full of misfits and demigods, Ann was a smart, pretty, upstanding young mother. People began to recognize Lynn on the street. She started getting fan mail.

During the week the seventh episode was shooting, Lynn got her best scene to date. She found her husband with another woman and shouted him down, and then she got to drink too much and tell each and every Monroe what she thought of them.

Not ten minutes after Lynn finished her second emotional scene, the executive producer gathered together the cast and crew and said the show had been canceled. Out of 116 prime-time shows, The Monroes was floundering in ninety-sixth place. Even ABC’s other turkey, Charlie Grace, was ranked at eighty-four.

“I’m really disappointed,” says Lynn. “That’s probably an understatement. Because this was the first time I was really enjoying the work I was doing. Kind of feeling like an actress. It wasn’t a dumb sitcom. I was getting some fun scenes to work on, and I felt like I was really facing the challenge.

“When I told my friend Liz that we were canceled, she said, ‘Do you feel relieved that it’s over?’ And I said, ‘Not at all.’ When other jobs have ended, I have felt a certain sense of relief. But I did not feel one iota of relief this time.

“I think what this has taught me is that I know I can do it now. I feel competent. I know I can act. I really wasn’t there this time last year. Careerwise and personally and artistically, I feel like I’ve grown. I can stick it out. I’ll make it. I’m almost there.”

GQ, February, 1996

Mike Sager 78C has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. This is an excerpt from his collection of essays, Revenge of the Donut Boys. His first novel, released this year, is Deviant Behavior.

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