I’ve always been drawn to stories. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wondered about people, speculated about their lives and their emotional states. I’ve always dramatized the personal realities of the people I meet. When I was younger, I suffered with wanderlust, constantly curious about the stories I imagined lay behind the closed doors of my neighbors’ houses, backlit by the dim blue TV light flickering through their living room windows. I didn’t have a name for what I felt then; call it an overactive imagination, perhaps, or a desire to learn if the people I knew and didn’t know, were really that different from my family and me. When I was old enough to wander freely around my urban Chicago neighborhood, I would make up scenes involving the people I knew, family dinners in progress or kids my age doing or ignoring their homework.
I wondered about my friends’ parents, those mysterious creatures called “grownups” who remained mostly unseen until breakfast or dinner time, when they would descend into my childhood universe like strange, unknowable gods possessed of unimaginable powers: They could drive, they could come and go according to their own desires. Sometimes they fought or argued or wept at awkward moments. Sometimes they died, only we never witnessed their deaths, hidden, as they usually were, behind the doors of some equally mysterious hospital in some alien part of the city from which we were barred. When such a death occurred, we typically learned about it around the dinner table, the news conveyed by an adult family member; “Mister Jensen (John’s grandfather) passed away last night.” Such an announcement was always met by a stunned gasp from the other adults, various expressions of sadness or surprise, and then we were told to be extra nice to the son, granddaughter or sister of the deceased person, who was usually a friend. But we were always kept in the dark as to why Mister Jensen died, about what it meant in the larger scheme of things, and about what his family would do without him.
In the vacuum of information in which kids of my generation lived, the only answers that made sense came from the stories we traded in worried whispers around the fire hydrant, stories about those mysterious gods, our parents, and their hidden lives. “Did you hear that Larry’s mama went crazy? That’s why she’s been gone for so long…she’s in the nuthouse!” Or… “Hey, did you see Tonya’s mom walking down the street yesterday? She was drunk and only wearing her underwear!”
This kind of fascination led inevitably to the kinds of programming I gravitated to on television. I was entranced by public television in mid-seventies Chicago, shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers and Doctor Who seemed to dramatize the absurdities and horrors of modern life. I sat up many nights watching shows like PBS’s Great Performances and American Playhouse. Watching filmed theatrical productions provided me with an adult’s perspective on life’s bigger questions, and introduced me to actors like Tom Baker, the Pythons, Derek Jacobi, James Whitmore and James Earl Jones. At that time, I had no idea that I wanted to become an actor. Actors weren’t working class kids like me. Actors were born and raised in Beverly Hills and Manhattan, right? It was simply about stories, violent, ridiculous or sexy tales well told and brilliantly acted. Little did I know then, that those stories, those actors would shape my tastes for decades to come.
When I auditioned for my first play, during my sophomore year of high-school, I did so with some vague intention of imitating those great artists. Strangely enough, it worked: I got a part in a play. And that small accomplishment would set the tone for my creative life for the next thirty years. Thirty-five years later, I spend most of my time working in Hollywood and New York. I’ve acted on Broadway, in many television shows and feature films. I love what I do, so much so that it carries me through the down times, times when as is the case for all actors, work opportunities might be slow in coming. For me, acting is a craft, each role to be approached with an artisan’s sensibility, fuelled by attention to detail and practice, practice, practice. But years ago I suffered a freakish household accident which sidelined me for twelve agonizing weeks. I was unable to walk and thus unable to work. When a good friend advised me to find some creative way to stop me feeling sorry for myself, I decided to write a screenplay. Twelve weeks later, I had completed a terribly derivative science fiction story, one that borrowed liberally (and unconsciously) from a popular comicbook of the time.
Ultimately I trashed the screenplay (it really was awful) but I couldn’t trash the feeling of accomplishment that settled over me when I typed, “The End.” I had done something. I had created something without having to wait for permission from an agent, casting director or studio head. Instead of interpreting someone’s story, I had created one of my own. I had written something. Since then I’ve published many short stories, two collections, several articles and four novels. When people ask me which I prefer: acting or writing, I usually reply that, in some ways… they’re simply different facets of the same beautiful gem: two ways of engaging an audience, two ways to tell stories. Everything that made me a distracted, nervous loner as a child, contributes to the actor and author I’ve become. The story-making reflex that once led me along strange paths into my own mind, now help navigate the even stranger byways of Hollywood and the worlds of speculative fiction.
I’m constantly testing ideas for stories, staging scenes in the theater of my mind, practicing pithy comebacks I’d never be brave enough to deploy in real life. Sometimes those ideas make it through that internal screening process to become stories. Sometimes they retreat into that dark storage area where writers stash the really bothersome ideas, those nagging reminders that something needs to be explored, to be exposed and dragged into the light of consciousness. Although I enjoy helping other writers realize their visions, there’s no greater satisfaction than looking at a scene or piece of dialogue, working and reworking it until your fingers ache and your eyes cross, and realizing that you’ve gotten it right. You’ve fleshed out the tiny nugget of your original idea and are now ready to present it, like a proud parent, for your readers. And so I feel particularly fortunate in that I get to address my creative urges from two different directions, as purveyor and pawn, as the player on the field and the coach watching from the sidelines. I love both sides of that creative process. As an actor, I’ve enjoyed telling many stories.
As an author, I look forward to creating even more.
Last God Standing and Who Wants to be the Prince of Darkness? are now both available from Angry Robot