The Dishonesty of Television

And the cowardice of TV actors.

I’m not going to name names in this piece. Well, maybe one name. He deserves it.

Years ago, back when I was a working journeyman director, I was talking to the guest star of a show I was shooting. He had a short career as an A list actor and a much longer career as a B list actor. He told me that he had been in so many movies where he was killed that he made a whole show real of himself being killed. Being shot. Stabbed. Electrocuted. Dying by fire. He had a second, separate show reel of himself killing somebody. Shooting them. Stabbing them. Throwing them out of a helicopter.

I liked him a lot. He’d done the circuit, by which I mean the path so many actors who “make it” go down. He may even have been the guy who described that path to me. It goes like this: A newcomer to the acting trade spends a long time being abused, humiliated, and treated like disposable furniture. Hundreds of auditions with no call backs. Hundreds of auditions with call backs but no part. Then one or two small parts where he/she is treated like crap. And finally the big break. Finally they are recognized for their talent and ability. Finally the TV ratings or the box office depend on their name on the credits. And that’s great for a while. But then they start to remember all the times they were treated like crap. The long hours and the constant stress starts to wear on them. Now it’s payback time. Now it’s their turn to make demands, to refuse to come out of the trailer if that asshole AD isn’t fired. Why can’t they have their own motor home? Their own personal assistant? Pretty soon everybody from the producer on down the list hates their guts. But they don’t really see it. Isn’t this what they deserve? Isn’t this how the star behaves. And there isn’t a show without me, so stop arguing and give me what I want.

Then finally the show ends, as all shows do sooner or later, not infrequently because of the star’s behavior. But that’s okay. They’ve put some money aside. They can enjoy a break. They are still a star. For a while. But after a year with no offers pouring in, they start calling their agent, the agent who made a fortune off them when they were working. Why the fuck can’t you get me a job? I need to work. And the agent who put up with them during the times they were being difficult? Now it’s payback time for him. You know why I can’t get you a job? It’s because everybody hates you. Do you know why everybody hates you? Because you are an asshole who can’t even get an agent in this town.

What? Are you saying you’re not my agent?

That’s exactly what I’m saying. Stop calling me. Go find yourself an agent dumb enough to take you on. You are what they call Hollywood poison. Now get the fuck out of my office.

So the former big shot star spends three, four, five years trying to outlive his reputation. They go to parties. They are nice to everybody. They are ever so humble. And finally, fucking finally, they get another break. Maybe Quentin puts them in one of his quirky moves. They are back on top. And oh boy, are they ever a joy to work with.

The actor who told me this story had been through this, maybe more than once. I really enjoyed working with him.

But here’s the point I’m getting to. The script we were shooting called for him to be surprised and threatened with a gun. He told me he had played this scene dozens of times, and had always wondered what his reaction would be if it happened to him in real life. Then it happened in real life. He said he never in a million years could have predicted his reaction, how he would play the scene in real life.

He said he heard a noise in his Malibu home, came down the stairs, and there was a guy holding a and screaming at him to get down on his knees. He went into immediate hyperventilation. He couldn’t get his breath. He was gasping for air. Terrified. He spent the next hour tied to a chair while the burglar ransacked his home, taking every thing of value and making sure he stayed terrified.

I was excited. That’s amazing, I told him. That’s how you should play the scene. Nobody has ever seen that on television. That’s an honest human reaction. That would be wonderful.

And of course he couldn’t do it. That would be stepping outside of the norms of television. That would be unexpected. The producers, and his audience, would hate that. That wasn’t… That didn’t align with the image. That wasn’t…manly. The audience would laugh. This wasn’t an episode of “Friends” we were shooting.

So he gave me what he was being paid to give me. Television. The television male.

I have spent a lot of time contemplating my career, and trying to figure out why I don’t like television. It finally occurred to me today. This is why. You can’t put honesty on TV. Now that I’ve had this epiphany, I can think of other situations where this was demonstrated to me.

At one point I couldn’t figure out why, every time I was delighted with what I shot, the producers were not delighted. And every time the producers were really happy with the show, I was, at best, muh. Not thrilled. Finally I figured it out. We weren’t trying to make the same thing. I wanted honesty. I wanted art. I wanted to make a show that was special. They wanted television. The two are not the same thing.

Not that wanting television is a bad thing. If that’s what you want. It just wasn’t what I wanted, and it wasn’t what I thought I was doing.

Another incident. I was working with Robert Conrad, preparing for a scene in which he reacts to the belief that his daughters have starved and frozen to death in the Alaskan winter wilderness. I wanted him to cry. To shed an honest tear. He wouldn’t do it.

“The last time I cried on camera my TV Q went down,” he told me. TV Q is a measure of an actor’s popularity with their audience, according to some kind of poll.

I loved Matt LeBlanc’s comment on this: “What’s the matter? Don’t you cry good.”

Robert Conrad, star of TV's 'The Wild, Wild West,' 'Hawaiian Eye ...

Robert Conrad, a memorable actor to work with. Searching for this picture I discovered that he died in February of this year. Damn. I am sorry about that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.