In a quiet corner of a Studio City bar called Residuals, cater waiter and actor Richard Comeau, a self-professed “man of many faces,” hands me two head shots: a straight-ahead commercial picture, and a tougher “character” shot, in which he looks like a cross between George Michael and Mephistopheles. He prefers the latter, perhaps because his Harley-Davidson landed him his first acting job.
“I was working in Manhattan as a model with the Ford agency, and one day I was sitting on my Harley outside All My Children, and this lady says, ‘Are you an actor?’ I said, ‘No, I just started modeling.’ She says, ‘We got this role you’d be great for. It calls for a guy who rides a motorcycle.‘ I got a little recurring role on that show, and then went on As the World Turns, and I said, ’You know what? Maybe I ought to move to L.A.‘”
In the 12 years since he arrived here, Comeau’s acted in two episodes of Young Riders, an episode of thirtysomething, the film Harley-Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and various showcases, most recently in The Line That Picked Up a Thousand Babes. That was in 1996. Comeau, 45, keeps up his Screen Actors Guild card, but has since made his living catering parties as a waiter, a bartender and, most recently, as a kitchen manager.
“I let them know right up front that my first love is acting, and that I have to be free to get to auditions,” says Comeau, who says this year he‘s been on “about 10 auditions,” though he hasn’t booked any jobs. “But I‘m sticking with it.”
A few days later, at 3 p.m., Comeau pulls the catering van in front of a recently refurbished Old Bank District building downtown. At 6 p.m., the Lusk Center at USC is holding a cocktail party for potential investors. Comeau, however, is less concerned with who’s coming to the party than where he‘s going to get his power.
“The people who rented the building to the USC folks did not check the outlets, and none of them are working,” Comeau says, heaving chafing dishes and hotboxes onto a makeshift staging area. “We’ll have to improvise. Which is a lot like acting.”
Comeau sets up olive tapenade, spinach-and-cheese ravioli, skewered chicken, and a terrine of cheese, basil pesto and sun-dried tomato.
“I made that terrine,” says Comeau, wiping up a splotch of Boursin. “It‘s not that hard, but I did.”
When the well-dressed party planner tells Comeau, “15 minutes,” Comeau dons a white apron and picks up utensils. For the next three hours he tends the buffet, refills serving bowls, cleans as he works, and directs patrons to the loo, all with a helpful, high-wattage smile. As the last of the guests leave, at 8 p.m., Comeau gathers trash and loads the van.
“On the wall of my acting class in Carnegie Hall was ’To attempt may mean to die, but not to try is never to be born,‘” Comeau says, closing the van’s doors. “Sure, I‘d like to act more. I love it. It’s like scoring a touchdown when you hit your mark and the director says, ‘Okay, close the gate, that’s a take.‘ And that’s what catering‘s about, too — you gotta get out there and do it right the first time.”
I find Comeau’s sunny attitude toward catering-while-wanting-to-act both laudable and astonishing. As someone who catered for four years while trying to be an actress, I know the toll the job takes on one‘s ego. You work long hours around mountains of food, which you store in a walk-in that smells like the 40 other mountains of food you’ve made that week; you slog said food in vans to locations where, as often as not, the hostess doesn‘t want you to take the direct route into the kitchen, lest you mar her foyer andor lawn, which means you carry everything you need to feed 10, 100, 1,000 people the long way, usually through crawlspaces between rental trucks delivering tables and chairs, which you need to set up. Then you heat the food, serve it, dump glasses and clear dishes, all with a big, obsequious smile, even as you’re hauling jumbo-size bags of trash to dumpsters and making little a to-go plates for the guests‘ dogs. It’s an anti-glamour gig, where nothing is about you-you-you, and you eat humble pie with the leftovers. In short, cater waitering gives you the opposite of the adulation actors so desperately crave.
“You gotta have a tough skin to be in the catering business,” agrees Comeau. “Everything‘s ’Absolutely, yes, we can do it. Yes, you‘re right.’ Even if they‘re not right, it’s our job to make them look as though they‘re right. Even though I might walk away and go in a backroom and use a few four-letter words.”
Unlike a restaurant waiter, who’s more a fixture than the customers he serves, and whose bonhomie and theatricality can earn him a nice tip, the cater waiter works on someone else‘s turf; he’s in and out in a matter of hours, and gratuities are optional. As far as most clients are concerned, the more anonymous the help is, the better. And please, use only the downstairs bathroom.
“Mostly everyone‘s great, but then you get the people who are just not very kind to the help. They treat us like we’re in slavery,” says Comeau. “I hate when I‘m working at someone’s house, and they‘ll be following you around and questioning you and looking at you with their heads cocked, as though you might take something. A lot of the celebrities or the wealthier people can’t let go of control, and that‘s very annoying. Hey, this is the time for enjoyment — you’ve got people serving you. Sit back and enjoy your guests. Let go. Trust us.
”I‘ve worked at the homes of a lot of big stars,“ Comeau continues. ”Big houses. I walk in and I’m like in awe. Wow, because look what they make for a film. But most of them are pretty cool. I‘ve worked for George Hamilton — what a hoot, he’s very funny. I‘ve worked at Christian Slater’s house, very nice guy. I‘ve worked for Danny DeVito, all in the catering capacity. I was working at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house, and there was an agent there who referred me to Omar‘s Agency, and I ended up getting a three-page spread in GQ from that. I had long hair back then, and I played a Warren Beatty look-alike, for a shot out of Shampoo. That was in ’92.“
Comeau‘s talk reminded me of my own experiences catering to the rich and famous — and my own delusions. I sincerely believed someone was going to tap me for a big role because of the winning way in which I served the creme brulee. At best, a famous customer was friendly: Ed O’Neil hung around the food station and made merry with the help at each Married With Children Christmas party. On the other hand, Quincy Jones (and don‘t think I haven’t been waiting a decade to tell this story) once stopped me while I was eight months pregnant and lugging a full chafer-and-Sterno setup; he handed me his dirty drink glass and told me to bring him a refill — Perrier — for which he did not say thank you. Two weeks later, I gave up catering for good.
Comeau is more reticent than I was about the possibility of being discovered at a celebrity bash.
”That used to enter my mind at the beginning, but I was more afraid people would look at me and say, ‘God, if he’s acting, what does he need to cater for?‘ I didn’t want them to associate me with that. That they would maybe relate it to me not being a qualified actor or something.“
But what about when he‘s sweating and elbow-deep in gravy and serving all those gorgeous people? Doesn’t he ever think, ”I‘m supposed be one of them!“?
”I did think that in my younger years, like when my agent died and I really couldn’t find another who believed in me the way he did,“ says Comeau. ”I was very frustrated in catering. I was not a happy guy. I‘d say to myself, ’God, why am I catering? I wish I wasn‘t catering, I want to be doing more acting.’“
And how much acting work does he predict he‘ll get this year?
Comeau looks thoughtful. ”Maybe two to three projects, maybe two days to three weeks at the most. I’m just praying that maybe some projects will come up.“
Shortly after Comeau was interviewed for this article, he booked his first gig in five years, and one not unlike his first acting gig, 12 years ago: an under-five (under five lines) on Port Charles. ”It‘s only one day, but who knows?“ says Comeau. ”It might turn into something more.“