Super Fun Happy Slide: Reflections on an Acting Career
I spent the first two thirds of my life working as a full-time actor, but about five years ago, my primary focus shifted from acting to writing. A funny thing happened on my way to being a full-time writer, though: I started working a lot as an actor, both on camera (CSI, Criminal Minds) and with my voice (Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes). This has lead to a pretty standard question when I do interviews: "What do you like more, acting or writing?"
"It's a lot like asking a parent which child they love more," goes my standard response, "the truth for me is that I love both of my children for different reasons, and I don't think it's possible for me to love one more than the other. However, it is impossible for me to imagine my life without them in it."
My acting career has spanned just a few months shy of thirty years. During it, I've worked with awesome people, complete douchebags, famous people who were intimidating, famous people who were gracious, famous people who were on their way down, and soon-to-be famous people who were on their way up. This week, I thought it would be fun to combine my actor side with my writer side, and tell a story about one of those people.
In 1990, I did an episode of the syndicated television series Monsters. The show was a lot of fun to work on, and though it's not one of the the more memorable entries on my resume, the experience I had while shooting it was. The episode was called "A Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites" and I played a teenager who is convinced that the neighborhood barbers are vampires. Nobody believes him, so he convinces his friend to join him in some casual late night breaking and entering to get a closer look inside the barbershop, where he hopes to find irrefutable evidence that will ensure he gets the girl, who is never seen or implied, but was an important part of my motivation.
Shortly after they get inside, the barbers show up, reveal in the usual manner that the damn kids were right all along, and strap our heroes into barber chairs, where vampirelarity ensues ... with one of the trademark Monsters twists: instead of drinking their victims' blood, they collect and feed it to a horrible monster who lives in the basement. The show ends with the the two kids, now adults, working in the same barbershop and serving the same hideous master, in the same manner.
As far as the standard "boy meets vampire, boy's blood is fed by vampire to hideous monster, boy becomes adult minion of hideous monster" story goes, it was pretty good. It also managed to sneak in a subversive message about the importance of breaking the cycle of vampirism, which qualified the episode as "educational" in some Eastern Bloc countries.
Here's where the story gets weird. The other kid was played by a young actor who was pretty new to Hollywood. Though he would eventually become one of the highest paid actors in prime time, he hadn't done very much before we worked together, and I was the well-known veteran on the set. His name was Matt LeBlanc; you may have heard of him.
Neither one of is knew that our career trajectories were on decidedly different paths when they intersected, but we liked each other right away, and rather than retreat to our individual dressing rooms when we weren't filming, we hung out like old friends, and in the course of getting to know each other, we discovered that we both liked Monty Python, MST3K, and Zucker Brothers movies.
One Friday morning, he asked me, "Did you see The Simpsons last night?"
I shook my head. "No, I don't watch The Simpsons."
He looked surprised. "Dude, it's exactly the kind of show you'd like."
"I don't know," I said. "I've watched it a couple of times, and I thought it was funny when it was part of the Tracy Ullman show, but I just don't think it works for a full half hour." I was 18 at the time, and due to my vast experience in life, the universe and everything, I was certain that The Simpsons wouldn't last more than two seasons. (Someday, I'll tell you how I also predicted that nobody would remember Nirvana after Smells Like Teen Spirit, or that Arrested Development would be on the air forever. Ahem.)
Matt turned to face me, put down his script, and for the next twenty minutes, reenacted the entirety of the previous night's episode, a rerun from the first season titled "The Crepes of Wrath."
"They send Bart to France, where he gets stuck working at a vineyard. They make him sleep with a donkey, they put antifreeze in the wine ... it's really terrible. But there's this part where he picks a grape," he stood up, and held an imaginary grape between his fingers. "And then he looks around ..."
Matt looked to his right, then to his left, the grin that he'd trademark four years later beginning to stretch across his face. "They cut away from him, and show that there's nobody around," he held his hands in front of his face, pantomiming a camera panning from side to side. "But when he tries to put it in his mouth, a hand shows up from nowhere and smacks him in the back of the head!" He started to giggle, "and then the French guy goes, don't eet zee grapes, Baaharrt!"
His fake French accent was hilarious, and we both giggled like idiots for several minutes. For the rest of the episode, whenever we were supposed to be serious or focused, Matt would catch my eye and quietly say "don't eet zee grapes, Baaharrt!" and I would crack up. I never ratted him out, even though the director grew tired of my seeming inability to keep it together when I was supposed to be skulking around the barbershop, or watching my precious bodily fluids flow down tubes into the gaping maw of some nameless horror.
On the final day of production, we traded phone numbers and planned to stay in touch, but when we didn't have working on Monsters in common, we returned to our regular lives and never got together to hang out and watch The Simpsons together.
A few years passed, and one night my friend and I watched an episode of this new show, Friends. I wanted to watch our Ren & Stimpy compilation on VHS, but there was a girl involved and ... well, you know how those things go.
I recognized Matt as soon as I saw him. "Hey," I said, "See the guy who plays Joey? That's the guy who convinced me to watch The Simpsons! We worked together on Monsters. Cool!"
I was genuinely excited for him. We'd only worked together for a week, but I liked him a lot. He was such a kind person, so guileless and so excited to be working as an actor, it was like one of the good guys - somebody who actually deserved success - had made it.
Life is rarely comfortable for anyone who hopes to be a full-time actor. It's intensely competitive, unreliable, and totally unpredictable. While some will get to grab the brass ring and never let go, most of us spend our entire careers watching fate dance right up to us, seductively unzip its top just enough to get us excited, and then laugh as it dances away with a different partner. It's like Lucy with the football, and it sucks. But there are moments on the set, when a guy you just met puts on a hilarious fake French accent and says, "don't eet zee grapes, Baaharrt!" and you collapse into giggles that you can viscerally recall fifteen years later. Those moments are priceless, and even though they don't put food on the table or open up any casting office doors, they're a big part of why I keep coming back to the dance.
Wil Wheaton ate zee grapes. Subscribe to his column's RSS feed here.
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