Like everyone who manages to stumble through five decades of life, I’ve done my share of stupid things – from trying to take a 30 mph corner at 70 on my boss’s brand new motorcycle (a learning experience that put me in the hospital for a week, then sent me back for my entire final year at college on crutches and a full leg cast), to providing an inadequate answer to the seemingly innocuous question posed over breakfast by the young lady I'd assumed was destined to become the Mrs. Hollywood Juicer.
Mistakes have consequences. My left leg has been a half-inch shorter and nothing but trouble ever since since that fateful day on Dead Man's Curve, while the lovely young woman found herself a guy smart enough to give her The Right Answer -- and in time, three kids to fill their home somewhere in the green paradise of Oregon.
Such is life. Nobody gets out of this world alive, much less unscathed, but we learn a few lessons along the way.
This post, however, concerns some of the Stupid Things I’ve done while trying to build a career here in Hollywood. The immense wave of ignorance I rode into town was a double-edged sword -- knowing nothing about the way things are supposed to be done, I arrived with a brash, ready-for-anything attitude, primed to do whatever it took to gain a toehold in the business. My unconscious approach worked, more or less, but looking back, it seems a minor miracle that I survived this baptism of fire or that so many of the people I met early on didn’t just tell me to fuck off. That they didn’t is a testament to their patience in allowing me to gain the skills and experience necessary to earn a living -- because I made a lot of stupid mistakes along the way. Fortunately, those further up the food chain were usually willing to give me another chance.
I owe those people, but it’s a debt that can’t be paid.
Like the time in the early 80's when I was rigging a Roger Corman space epic and had to belly-crawl into a tight, dark corner to power a brand new AC dimmer pack – and in the dim light, mistook the yellow hot leg for the white neutral. Being unaware of the difference between single phase and three phase power at the time -- and having left a flashlight and volt meter behind -- my assumption melted down that brand new dimmer pack within the hour, after which the remains were hauled back to the rental house for major repairs.
For some reason the gaffer didn’t fire me – and in hooking up hundreds of dimmers since then, I’ve made damned sure to check the incoming power lines each and every time. Lesson learned.
Then, bone-tired and brain-dead while wrapping a stage after my first 20 hour music video, I waited directly under a studio 5K hanging from a half-inch hemp line twenty feet overhead. Staring upward like a brain-dead cow, my intent was to grab the lamp as it was lowered, then guide it gently to the floor. The juicer up high had a lot more experience, though, and warned me to stand clear while he untied the rope. I followed orders -- which was a very good thing, because the moment he loosened the knot, that fifty pound steel and glass lamp head dropped like an anvil, destroying the light and cratering the stage floor. As it turned out, the rope had been charred and weakened by the fierce heat rising from the burning lamp over the course of a long day rigging and an even longer day filming. It was a miracle it hadn’t let go when the stage was crowded with people – and I was lucky not to be standing there chewing my metaphorical cud as the lamp dropped on my head.
Another lesson learned.
There are many more examples, and looking back, it’s difficult to choose the absolute Stupidest Thing I ever did – but reading this over at The Hills are Burning jarred my sclerotic memory. Whether or not this particular Stupid Thing really is the most egregious of my mental lapses in Hollywood is impossible to quantify, but having happened within the last decade, it stands out from the rest.
As one of the regular day-players over the final two seasons on Will and Grace, I worked very hard to impress the powers that be, and thus be in line for a spot on the core crew should opportunity arise. That was one fast crew – the Gaffer, Best Boy and juicers moved very quickly to get the work done. Being older than all of them, I felt a very real pressure to match their pace, and thus not be perceived as a slow, over-the-hill plow horse. Some of this came from the very top, because the director was the legendary Jim Burrows, a crusty, sharp-tongued veteran who hates to waste time and does not suffer fools with any grace whatsoever. He expects his crews to be fast and competent, and they are. Still, it’s axiomatic that speed kills (any way you choose to interpret that statement), and in my case, the pressure to get things done right now led to a split-second decision that nearly proved my undoing.
While setting up for a quick scene on a block-and-shoot day, the grips hung a swing-set backing from 1/4 inch hemp ropes tied at either end of a twenty foot section of speedrail. By the time we'd roughed in the lighting for the scene, the cameras were in place and cast ready to go. Burrows looked on with his usual impatience, anxious to shoot. We had one lamp left to power, but the closest power feed dangled nearly nineteen feet above the floor. There was no man-lift handy, so I grabbed a ten step ladder and headed up. Half-way to the top, I spotted a twelve step only twenty feet away, and thought about aborting my climb to use the bigger ladder -- but the gaffer was watching, so I decided to go for it. Standing on the very top step, with nothing but thin air to steady myself, I was just able to brush the feeder cable with my fingertips. At that moment, the smart thing – the only thing, really -- was to climb back down, fetch the twelve step ladder, then make the hookup.
But that would eat up precious time, and in the process, reveal that I'd made a bone-headed move by grabbing a ladder that was too short in the first place. So I did the Stupid Thing instead, going up on my tiptoes to reach and connect those two cables… at which point the ladder suddenly rocked forward, shifting under me.
We’ve all heard about people who fall from a great height having their entire past life flash before their eyes. Maybe that’s true and maybe not, but in my case – balanced on the knife edge of disaster – I experienced a disturbingly clear vision of my immediate and unfortunate future. Trying to stick the landing from ten feet up, wearing a full tool belt, could easily break one or both feet, ankles, or even snap that gimpy left leg again. In a split-second that seemed to stretch out like salt water taffy, my eyes fixed on the piece of speedrail holding the backing, which just might be close enough to reach if I timed my jump perfectly. But even if I managed to grasp the aluminum pipe, would the ropes hold -- or would I drag the whole backing to the floor with me, doing God knows how much damage in the process? Even if that maneuver spared me from serious injury, the fact that I’d committed such a colossally stupid blunder right in front of Burrows and his shark-eyed producers would put an end to my tenure at Will and Grace. Worse, the story would rapidly spread throughout the studio and beyond, marking me as a clumsy doofus too dumb to use the right ladder, an act that could severely impact my potential of landing a show or ever getting off the insecure merry-go-round of day-playing.
And that’s if everything went right -- not being a circus athlete, odds were I wouldn’t quite reach the speedrail, and in flailing desperation, would grab the edge of the backing to break my fall. The backing would rip and tear, and I’d still end up hurt on the floor. However this thing unfolded in the next few milliseconds, my impending fall would be an unmitigated personal disaster.
Somehow – and for the life of me, I’ll never understand how the hell it happened – I managed to rock back ever so slightly and regain my very precarious balance. Gingerly, my heart pounding and adrenaline surging, I made that first crucial step back down the ladder, and moments later was standing on the floor, thoroughly freaked out. One very stupid decision in the heat of the moment had nearly altered the trajectory of my late-stage career in a massive way. Rather than being on my way to the hospital (and off Will and Grace forever), I was shaken but okay, with the saving grace that nobody else there on set was aware what had just happened. I managed to remain as a regular day-player until the show ended its run the following season.
There was only myself to blame for this near-disaster. It was my hasty decision to use a too-short ladder and hope for the best, ignoring my own common sense in the manic rush to get the job done. It was stupid. Nobody would have fired me for taking thirty extras seconds to get the right ladder and do the job safely -- but I allowed myself to succumb to the unspoken pressure, and in my haste, nearly paid a very heavy price.
Still, that day taught me a valuable lesson -- and it was the last time I did something quite that dumb on a ladder. I push the envelope from time to time -- given the realities of working on crowded sets, there's often no choice -- but never again to such a degree. I always leave a certain safety margin, or else find another way to get the job done.
I was damned lucky that day, and I know it.