For almost 5 years, I lived in New York City. I went there, just like so many others, to pursue a dream, to scratch an itch, to give flight to the fantasy that I could make a living being a performer. This means, of course, that I was a waiter and a bartender full-time and stand-up comedian and actor, part-time. Very part time.
I didn’t have a head shot or an agent. I, for the most part, stumbled into gigs. Doing stand-up is easy. There is no shortage of open mic nights. Any prospective comedian can just scour the pages of Backstage magazine and show up. If you are funny enough, eventually you will get asked to play slightly bigger gigs with other up and coming comedians. If you hang around long enough and are just open to the possibility of working toward bigger shows-sometimes you can actually make something of yourself. For some reason, the allure of being a hard-working comedian, waned.
But the great thing about being in NYC and living within that world of creative people is that you may actually get a a chance to do some other, more substantive things. By more substantive, I mean actual, here’s a script, be at rehearsal at this time and place and let’s get this thing on the stage or on film or whatever. This actually happened a few times and it happened by sheer luck, to be quite honest. I guess my personality, voice and presence were strong enough to make producers and writers take notice through randomness of place, namely, bars I worked in and bars I hung out in.
I worked at an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side called, Trattoria Sambuca. Of course, almost everyone I worked with was an artist of some sort and for a brief time, a guy named TK McManus tended bar there. I was never close to TK but he was a nice enough guy and he had written a screenplay titled, “Existential Vacuum”. He was working hard to get this script turned into an actual movie and one way to make that happen is something called a ‘Read Through’. this ‘Read Through’ was done in front of a number of potential financial investors. If they like what they hear and see, they might invest some money so they can tell their friends that they are now, movie producers. I don’t really know how these things get set up, but they do.
TK, knowing that I was an actor, asked me if I could participate in this thing and I was more than happy to involve myself. He gave me the script, told me that I might have to voice a couple of different characters due to a shortage of actors and, you know, just be ready to do whatever is needed. One of the interesting elements of these ‘Read Throughs’ is that there is no previous rehearsal. At least there was no rehearsal for this one. It is a very bare bones thing.
On the night of the ‘Read Through’, I showed up at the theater, a former church off of Columbus Avenue, and I don’t know anyone there. I find a place to sit and all of us actor types start making a little small talk. After a few minutes I did recognize the two guys sitting behind me and to my right. One gent was Stephen Mailer. He is the son of author, Norman Mailer. He was wearing a Yankees cap and I was wearing my Orioles cap and the reason I knew who he was is because we were both in John Water’s “CryBaby”. We didn’t actually work together in that film but it was our common ground which was a pretty cool. For the record, in “Crybaby” I worked with Johnny Depp and Willem Defoe, so YAY me!
The fellow to Stephen’s right was familiar to me but I couldn’t place him at first. Then it dawned on me, it was Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was fresh off of “Boogie Nights” and I was impressed. I remember thinking, “this guy is good!” I couldn’t figure out how he ended up here, with US?! He obviously didn’t need to do this. I think Stephen said something like, “This is Phil.”. Friendly waves were exchanged and then it was time to do this thing. Turns out that I had to do two different parts and one of them gets to say, “Fuck you” to one of Phils’ characters. That was a rush!
Afterwards, I couldn’t have been more jazzed to let all my other drinking-buddy-actor friends at Malachy’s pub on the Upper West Side know that I had just done this thing with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Even then, at that early part of his career in the late 90’s, aspiring actors knew just how good he was. I can’t explain it. It’s weird.
“Capote” is one of the handful of movies I own on DVD. His performance is staggering. Equally as powerful is his performance in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead”. ,
Let’s just say that ever since that night we delivered dialogue to each other, I’ve thought of him often. And now that his battle with addiction has been exposed, I feel a deeper connection with him due to my own difficulties with alcohol that caused me to get sober 12 years ago. Heroin and booze are different but addiction is addiction.
I cherish the years that I spent in New York. I’ve kept mementos of those days and of projects and performances that I’d been a part of and tonight, I pulled out this, the script for “Existential Vacuum”.I’ve kept it all these years because this is the reminder of the night that I spent with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman.