What do Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, James Dean and Me Have in Common?
You’ll have to keep reading to find out:
I’ve written many a tale of the ignominies I suffered in my out-of-work Wacktress (waiter/actress) years. But I wouldn’t change a thing. Because one man, and learning the craft of acting, set me on the road to reclaiming myself.
This is an excerpt from my book, Smash, Crash and Burn: Tales from the Edge of Celebrity.
Chapter Two: Sheriff Ray Bledsoe
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid are on the run from The Law. They’ve broken into Sheriff Ray Bledsoe’s house to petition his help. Get him to vouch for ‘em now that they’ve changed their wicked, outlaw ways.
But ‘ole Ray ain’t havin’ none of it.
He asks ‘em to have the decency to pull out their guns and tie him up to his chair in case someone saw ’em come into his house.
Then he fixes ‘em with steely eyes framed by tumbleweed eyebrows and a thicket of salt-and-pepper hair you could make a thatched roof out of and says:
“Something’s got you panicked and it’s too late. You may be the biggest thing ever to hit this area, but in the long run, you’re just two-bit outlaws. I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but a couple two-bit outlaws on the dodge … you just want to hide out ‘til it’s old times again, but it’s over.
“It’s over, don’t you get that?
“It’s over and you’re both gonna die bloody and all you can do is choose where. I’m sorry. I’m getting mean in my old age. Shut me up, Sundance.”
I’m driving up the Pacific Coast Highway on a rain-slicked, thunderheads Malibu morning. I love the unusual California rain.
It feels like I’m gestating inside the chrysalis of my hurtling car, those close, wet skies cocooning me until I’m ready to emerge.
In five minutes I’ll be standing in front of Jeff Corey, the elderly gentleman who portrayed Sheriff Bledsoe in one of my all-time favorite movies, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
I’m auditioning to be accepted into Jeff’s storied acting class, whose alumni include Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda, James Dean (oh there it is!) and Leonard Nimoy. Spock impresses me the most due to his lack of neurosis.
It’s true the only acting experience I’ve got under my belt is a turn as a tomboy Snow White for my eighth-grade drama elective.
I developed a transient stutter and nervous facial tic for the run of that show. But, I’m certain Corey will sense my natural charisma. It’ll be small work to burnish my innate, albeit untapped, talents and I’ll spend my days dodging paparazzi long enough to spend my fortune at the jewelry counter in Mervyn’s department store.
I’ve arrived and park on the shoulder of the road, peering down the long, bucolic driveway to Jeff’s Point Dume home. My stomach executes a perfect somersault as I exit the car
Once I’m in Jeff’s wild front yard I can’t decide whether to knock on the front door of the house or to find the entrance to his studio above the garage.
I’m externally paralyzed by this simple choice and internally paralyzed by the terror of having turned down the eight-hundred-dollars-a-month offer to anchor the morning show for Channel 3 News in Eureka, California, so I can instead chase down the thespian-road-less-travelled that may well land me working the counter at DuPars diner off the 101 North in Thousand Oaks with all the other octogenarian waitresses named Midge or Gidget wearing Buster Brown orthopedic shoes serving gelatinous cherry pie.
“Hello. Are you Shannon, the actress?”
I emerge from my self-flagellating reverie to spy an elderly gentleman approaching.
In person he doesn’t look so much like Sheriff Bledsoe as he does the author Kurt Vonnegut, which tripwires a titillating nine-year old memory of Valerie Perrine and Michael Sacks having sex under a clear dome while aliens watch them and comment on “human copulation” in the movie version of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
Jeff is tall and rangy, and now that thick head of hair and those bushy eyebrows frame inquisitive eyes and a crooked nose whose magnitude could fill entire chapters of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
“I’m Shannon, but I don’t have the foggiest idea whether I’m an actress or not.”
“I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful actress because you’re intelligent.”
I have two thoughts. I’m intelligent? And, You have to be smart to be a good actress?
Anxiously I trail Jeff up the stairs to the airy loft above his garage. It has the same eucalyptus/citrus scent as my grandma’s Santa Barbara home that backs onto a creek filled with frog choristers.
My grandma’s house was neutral like Switzerland after my parents divorced when I was two. It tended to be the place my dad dropped me off and my mom picked me up, and vice versa.
My mom’s world was volatile. She was car-crashingly beautiful. Men flocked to her in droves and she had a tendency to select the ones who made her crazy.
I became her consigliere at age three, purportedly talking her down from the rafters after an affair with a married doctor went south and bolstered her through three subsequent marriages.
I got a lot of satisfaction out of being the Wise Child, wearing the title like an ermine cloak on a float in a parade for Her Highness the Baby, waving to my lesser-evolved minions, until every other weekend when I transitioned to my dad’s house where I, inexplicably, morphed into her polar opposite.
At dad’s I was the Bumbling Scientist, a kid who did well in school, but had no common sense.
I felt so foreign and other-like with my dad’s second family that I disappeared into books or my head.
Sometimes I was so disconnected that I’d get a steak out of the freezer for my stepmom to cook and forget to close the freezer door, defrosting an entire side of beef. Or I’d be sent to the pantry to get a can of green beans and not be able to find it even when I was looking right at it.
In my grandma’s world I could be entirely myself, a child who was neither too wise nor too dumb. I could be sad there. I could screw up. I didn’t feel compelled to be perfect. I was closest to God there, swimming in the ocean, touching sea anemones in the tide pools and whispering The Lord’s Prayer with my grandma as she tucked me into bed at night and the frogs sang me to sleep.
At grandma’s house I was home.
When I enter Jeff’s loft some of that safe magic rushes out to greet me.
“You can begin any time you like,” Jeff says sitting in a folding chair opposite me. It’s time to perform my monologue. This requires extensive preparation that entails a great deal of breathing, which could be described as hyperventilation.
My monologue is an excerpt from Joyce Carol Oates’s The Ontological Proof of My Existence. I chose it to demonstrate my gravitas, but I have no clue what “ontological” means and wish desperately I’d looked it up in the dictionary before I got here.
Where am I supposed to look during my monologue? Am I supposed to look at Jeff? And if I look at Jeff, am I supposed to look right into his eyes? And if I do that, won’t it just feel like I’m looking into the eyes of a man who is determining that I’m a very bad actress because he can tell I don’t really believe what I’m saying?
I look at a space just left of Jeff’s head. It’s an empty space. There isn’t even a picture or a painting there. It’s just a white wall. My visions blurs and my eyes cross a little because I have no focal point.
Internally I equivocate then decide to look at Jeff’s nose. It’s there in his face minding its own business, breathing in and out just like other mere mortals’ noses. And even though it belongs to a man who may tell me in sixty short seconds that I should go back to school and get a masters degree in swampology, it seems a nice nose. It’s probably been humbled over the years by people provoking it, uttering things like, “Why the long face?”
I start – attempting to perform the role of Sheila, a sixteen-year old runaway who is raped and turned to prostitution. In the first moments of the monologue I can almost see the words coming out of my mouth, as if I’m a cartoon character in a comic strip with a little dialogue bubble floating over my head and an arrow pointing at my mouth.
Shifting my focal point to Jeff’s eyes I can see that they’re kind. They’re engaged. They’re compassionate. My breathing slows. My body catches up with my brain. Then I reach the last bit of the monologue.
Sheila, in describing how she survives and compartmentalizes her rape and subsequent inculcation into prostitution, says:
“There is no connection between myself and this body. I could go on talking and my voice could float away, into the clouds … I am the size of an angel, the size of a fingernail … I could be borne into the sky on a piece of soot, a piece of charred paper flying in the air …”
I’m like a surfer catching a rogue wave and riding it in to shore, because Sheila and I have merged.
I relive the disconnect from my body when my seven-year old self steps off the bottom step of the staircase and into the living room where I see my mom crying and The Cop, her second husband, smiling between the two, ragged bloody trails her fingernails have left down the sides of his face.
Then I’m floating above my ten-year old body that convulses over a toilet, barfing out its nerves on a day I transition from my mom’s to my dad’s.
Next I’m thirteen, standing in my dad’s pantry trying desperately to find that elusive can of green beans, because not finding it proves that I’m an idiot.
After I finish the monologue there’s a long, not unkind silence as Jeff looks at me.
“Did you read the play?” Jeff asks.
“Yes, the play your monologue is from?”
“No, this is from a monologue compilation book I got at Samuel French in Hollywood,” I reply.
“I hate those damned things,” says Jeff. “So when you come to class be sure to read the entire play before you perform a monologue. You need to understand where the character is coming from, where she is now and where she wants to go.”
“I can come to your class?”
“Yes. I expect you to start reading five plays a week. I don’t care if they’re classics or contemporary, but for God’s sake no more compilations. That’s like being a body trying to walk around without a head.”
“Five plays a week?”
“Acting is a craft,” says Jeff, “not a gimmick. It’s serious business for serious people. And I think you’re a serious person, Shannon.”
“Thank you,” I say in a thick voice.
In my car driving home I imagine the magazine covers I’ll grace, the red carpets I’ll trod and finally, of course, the Oscar I’ll win. I’m convinced Jeff’s class will be my conduit to all of those things.
But something unforeseen has happened. I feel the exterior of who I am – the wise child, the bumbling scientist, the attention seeker – shift ever so slightly, leaving a small opening for something new to enter.
Later that day I drive up to Samuel French in Hollywood and buy my first five plays.
My boyfriend Ted doesn’t like the idea of me going to acting class. For the first time in our five-year relationship he’s the one who is clingy and insecure.
He seems somehow diminished since he graduated college and stopped playing football. He’s got the body and disposition of a Roman Gladiator and had he lived during those times would have bested every man or beast the Coliseum could provide.
But everything that worked on the football pitch makes no difference in the real world.
He’s fraught with self-doubt and a lack of purpose while I, for the first time, am passionate about something that has nothing to do with him.
One night I’m sleeping in one of the twin beds in Ted’s childhood bedroom and he in the other when I have a nightmare.
It’s the opening sequence of the late-1960’s television hit Get Smart where Don Adams, as Maxwell Smart, walks down a long corridor and heavy steel doors clang shut behind him until he reaches a little telephone booth and steps inside — only in the dream I’m Don Adams.
I wear an oppressively heavy wedding gown that cuts into my shoulders. I’m trudging down that hallway with the slamming doors, dragging my endless tulle train on the ground behind me.
Finally I arrive at the little telephone booth and enter. Cramming my dress in around me I close the cantilevered glass door. I’m panting and claustrophobic. Suddenly the telephone in the booth rings, yanking me out of the dream with a jolt.
Blearily I look over at my handsome, masculine lover still asleep in the next bed and think: I don’t want to get married. Instead I yearn to excavate raw, volatile, angry characters that call to the subconscious, voiceless, long-dormant pieces of myself.
“Pull her over your knee and spank her!” yells Jeff; his eyes alight with maniacal inspiration beneath his medieval brow.
My scene partner Mark and I stare goggle-eyed at Jeff and the twenty other students watching us.
We’re midway through a scene from playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea in which my character, Roberta, confesses to her lover that she initiated an incestuous act with her abusive, domineering father in order to control him.
After six months of studying with Jeff I’m still surprised by the inventive rashness of his methods.
“You want him to spank me?” I blurt incredulously.
“That’s right,” yells Jeff like a sea captain to his swabbies whilst the ship is under siege. “Mark, pull her over your knee and give her a few sound whacks!”
“But …” I stammer.
“Just do it!”
Mark yanks me over his legs and spanks me resoundingly on the ass. Ouch. That hurts!
“Now Shannon,” bellows Jeff, “I want you to say, ‘This is what I get for blowing my father!’”
“I can just say the dialogue, Jeff!” I argue.
“Don’t argue with me,” Jeff shouts above the din of butt smacking, “Say, ‘This is what I get for blowing my father, for destroying and betraying my family!’ Go!”
I repeat Jeff’s words, then, from some hidden, unconscious place come words of my own, “This is what I get for being fucked up!”
I don’t know what’s happening, but a hole opens in my chest. It’s a vortex that everything dark and broken gets sucked down into.
“I’m not the good girl! I’m not perfect! I’m so sick of trying to make everyone happy I could explode!”
Over this Jeff yells, “Go To Scene!”
The lines from the play aren’t on the page anymore; they erupt out of my mouth and I’m Roberta suffering the consequences of her rebellion.
“I had no right to do what I did!” I cry, “It was too bad a thing to do. There’s no happy thing possible because a me. It’s my house. It’s my garbage. I can’t leave this house cause it’s my crime!”
“I forgive you what you done,” yells Mark, who has absorbed my energy and feeds it back to me.
He wallops me again and this time, despite the pain, the blow feels right. It flays me clean and newborn.
“That’s for doin what you did. All right? That’s the punishment,” says Mark, his voice breaking.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. It just happened. It was … I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please …”
“I forgive you. It’s done. I’ve done it. It’s done.”
The scene doesn’t end so much as it ebbs back from whence it came.
In a sober, still place at the center of my being something intangible, that I don’t even have a name for, heals.
I can’t help myself. I look to Jeff for approval. He gazes back at me like a father who has just witnessed his child do something wonderfully unexpected.
I won’t know this until he dies fourteen years later and I’m sitting at his memorial service just after the birth of my first daughter in a packed audience at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. listening to one of Jeff’s former students talk about Jeff’s class.
“The safe place to do the brave things that need to be done.”
Jeff, wherever you are in the afterlife, you were the voice of permission in my life and the God of my understanding has your face. I love you.
By now you have figured out that Jeff Corey is what Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda and James Dean have in common with me. That’s about where it ends. But if you’d like to read Smash, Crash & Burn you can find it on Kindle and Nook. xo S