Into the Abyss with Dustin Hoffman
Alan chose to avoid being served with divorce papers, which is easy to do when you’re out of state. So the process dragged on endlessly while I desperately wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. I would sit in my bedroom, look out over the valley, as I loved to do and had done so many times before; knowing that very soon all that I had worked for would be gone. I had finally checked out our finances and found out we were in catastrophic shape. House payments weren’t being paid, tax bills had been ignored and we needed to sell the house before Erika and I were evicted. Acting jobs were too few and far between to count on those supporting us and the only office skills I had were typing and answering the phone. We were going to lose everything and I felt powerless to stop it.
Three months later, when Alan finally came back from Dallas, bringing with him a new girlfriend, we were finally able to finalize the divorce. He told the court he was now out of a job and was able to get the judge to agree to minimal child support payments. But he didn’t pay them anyway. I went to court again and again, but it was all to no avail. Eventually I went to the prosecutor’s office to try and get them to force him to pay up but they told me the list of fathers who were avoiding child support was a mile long and it could be years before they got around to him. My mother paid for Erika to go to pre-school at a Lutheran church near our house and I signed with a temp agency. Because the owners were friends with John Lombardo, they immediately found me a job typing checks at a downtown Bank of America. The one thing I clearly remember on the way to my first day of work is sitting on the freeway in bumper to bumper traffic and listening to the song, “I Can Take Care of Myself,” and thinking, that sounds like he’s singing about my friend Wendy, an actress who I had become friends with after we worked together on Vega$. I didn’t know who sang it or that soon I would meet the man who wrote and recorded the song, Billy Vera, and that we would become friends.
During the months that the house was on the market, I kept looking for acting jobs and going to acting classes. Working in class with Eric Morris kept me sane, going on auditions gave me hope, and Erika gave me a reason to keep on living. It was tricky juggling temp jobs and auditions, but I had to make it work to maximize my chances of making money. One of those auditions was for a movie called Once Upon a Time in America, produced by Arnon Milchan. I drove to the Chateau Marmont, off Sunset Boulevard, early in the morning and parked my car on the street next to one of the bungalows. I remember thinking as I walked by that they were nothing special to look at and I didn’t understand why celebrities would want to stay there when they could afford something so much nicer. I barely remember the audition (Elizabeth McGovern got the part), only that the hotel felt old and strange and I wondered why the auditions were being held there. I didn’t have a good feeling as I walked back to my car, happy to drive away from there. The next day I read in the paper that John Belushi had been dying of an overdose in Bungalow Number Three as I unknowingly walked by. An incredibly talented man had destroyed himself with drugs a few feet away from me while I passed by oblivious. But I wasn’t the one who failed him. I couldn’t have possibly known what was going on inside the bungalow. But his friends knew, especially the ones who had visited him the night before. They knew what he was doing to himself and did nothing. Be that as it may, Once Upon a Time in America and Arnon would still play a role in my future.
About this time came the opportunity of a lifetime for me. My agent called and told me Dustin Hoffman wanted to interview me regarding a new movie he was doing called Tootsie. Hal Ashby, who had directed Coming Home, would be directing. I was to meet Dustin in Beverly Hills at his agency, CAA. I was both excited and relieved that I wouldn’t have to audition the first time I met him because I would be much too nervous. And I definitely would not say anything to him about predicting some years ago that he would never make it as an actor. So I went in to meet him enveloped in euphoria just at the thought that Dustin Hoffman wanted to interview me for a role in his movie. We talked for an hour, chit-chatting about the business and a little bit about the movie. I asked him what it was like being super famous and having everyone stare at him every time he was out in public. And his answer? He smiled that familiar smile I had seen so many times on the movie screen and said, “It’s like being you.” Quite a compliment I thought but not the same as being famous.
At the end of our conversation he walked me over to a full-length mirror and we looked at ourselves standing together, then at each other, thinking it was a pretty good match. My hopes soared when he said he wanted to see film on me. “Lots of colors,” he said, “Lots of colors.” I promised him he would see colors. I sailed out of there on a cloud and immediately called my agent to tell her we had to send film over to CAA for Dustin to look at. Then came the inevitable wait for word. It didn’t come. Hal Ashby died and the project was put on hold. But still I kept hoping that Dustin would call, and when I read in the trades that Sydney Pollock was signed to direct and the project was to go forward again, I figured it would be a matter of time before we heard something. After waiting patiently for what seemed forever, I called my agent and said I didn’t understand why we hadn’t heard something one way or the other, and as I listened in disbelief, my agent said, “Oh, Dustin called from New York and wanted your home number and I told him I couldn’t give it to him. You know how some of these people are with actresses. He probably wanted you to come to New York to take advantage of you.” I almost fainted dead away. I could not fathom that she would ruin this chance for me. She sounded more like somebody’s Aunt Nellie from Kansas rather than a Hollywood agent. I don’t know how many actresses Dustin had seen, or if I was at the top of his list, or one of a handful, but he had seen my acting and was still interested in me. I had a shot. And now it was gone forever. Jessica Lange ended up being cast in the part of the nurse and she was perfect and I loved her in it. And Tootsie is still my number one favorite movie. That agent was history.
Jan Natarno was the go-to guy when it came to making acting reels. They were long in those days; some as long as twenty minutes. You’d never get a casting director to look at a reel that long now. Sixty seconds and out would be the perfect length, but few actors can bring themselves to limit their scenes to that short a time. At one point, while sitting in Jan Natarno’s waiting room with a motley collection of actors like myself, apparently, I caught the eye of one of them, even though I was pretty much oblivious to anything around me at that point in time. I wanted to get in and get out and pick up Erika at school. Men were the last thing on my mind. But surprisingly, there were a steady stream of them very interested in taking care of Erika and me and relieving us of all our cares. And some were very nice, as well as being good-looking and successful. But it was too soon to even consider being with anyone else. I was barely getting over my divorce from Alan and all the pain and humiliation that entailed. I had my temp work, Alan sent money every now and then, and we got by. The house was still for sale and we hadn’t been evicted yet.
I had run into someone who was taking acting lessons with Darryl Hickman and he persuaded me to give him a try. I loved Eric and would always use what I had learned from him, but apparently, Darryl didn’t just teach acting; he believed in giving his students chances to work in the business and had producers and directors observe his classes from time to time, and I needed to work more than I needed to be in class. I had had a crush on Darryl since I was a little girl, having seen him on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis as Dobie’s older brother, and in real life he was Dwayne’s (Dobie’s) older brother. Darryl accepted me as a student and I became friends with two actors in class, Bill Zipp and Michael Simms, who would end up giving me a place to stay later, and with Loren Koslow who I worked with on scenes that Darryl made us do over and over again until they were perfect. Loren was a receptionist in the Sherman Oaks Galleria and had access to the Breakdowns. Every other day I would go over to her office and we would look through the Breakdowns hoping to find something we could submit ourselves for since neither one of us had an agent at that point. She would jab at the switchboard as it buzzed, “I hate this job, I hate this job, I hate this job!” she would hiss. I knew the feeling.
The best scene I have ever done in class or anywhere else was in Darryl’s class with Michael Simms. It was from the play The Detective and Michael, brilliant actor that he is, became so enraged, and frightened me so much, I forgot we were acting and everything became startlingly real. When we were finished, Darryl told us this was one of the few times when he forgot that he was watching an acting scene and believed that what we were doing was so absolutely real he was worried for my safety. I had used some of Eric Morris and some of Darryl and I don’t know what Michael used. I think he was just born a good actor.
Bill Zipp was also a very good actor and he and I ended up doing a scene where two actors were addicted to cocaine and fighting over it. It was supposed to be a comedy but considering what I was going through, I had a hard time finding the humor in it.
Bill, knowing how much I loved animals and always listened to me talk about Paul and the Sea Shepherd, told me I ought to get in touch with Chris De Rose. Chris had just formed a new group, Last Chance for Animals, and its focus was getting animals out of research laboratories. I was not interested. I couldn’t possibly get involved with something like that. Having to look at pictures of baby seals was all the horror I could deal with. Ending vivisection was a hopeless cause and the suffering of lab animals was so brutal I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t know then that that was just God’s first push in the direction he wanted me to go, but in those days, I wasn’t listening.
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