🎬 Actor – The Giggler
On John MacKay, who my played my father in "I Was a Teenage TV Terrorist," and why I'm formally apologizing for how poorly I acted when I moved to New York and asked him for a job.
When I first met my second father, I giggled uncontrollably.
I was eighteen. It was the third day of shooting. My exasperated second mother had kicked me out of the house in the suburbs, and I’d moved to New York City with my first girlfriend. My first movie director was, umm, displeased with the out-of-control giggling, and my first movie producer started to worry about her first “Paramount” film.
In our first scene together, no more than sixty seconds in, my second father lifted me from my chair by my thick brown corduroy lapels and yelled in my face. Big ballbuster Marine eyes. Very, very wide and an only pleasing from a distance Germanic blue. Flecks of drill sergeant spittle were the least of my problems. He got bulldog close to my face, and I’m trying, trying, trying… to hold it, hold it, hold it…. then slipping, slipping, slipping… acting now the least of my problems…
By the seventh take my giggling was like clockwork. Every time my second dad promised my girlfriend and I that we would start “at the bottom… below the bottom” the giggles pounced like adorable kittens with tickly little claws.
If I survived the submarine attack of spittle-giggles on the words “below the bottom,” then I blew apart on “Now you listen to me, and you listen to me good. When you come into this office, I talk and you listen. Your entire wretched generation has poisoned itself with narcotics and abominable music.”
And… wait for it…. wait for it… everyone on the set wait for it… Producer and director wait for it… it’s coming, coming, coming… hold on…
“Tee-hee-hee…. oh, tee-hee-hee…”
I blew apart as predictably as a SpaceX rocket.
“One more take. It could happen to anyone. Let’s settle down for this one, please.”
“Focus, Adam!” scolded my fourth girlfriend who, any neutral party could agree, should have been more focused on memorizing her lines.
And… everyone looking away now…
“Oh! Oh! Sorry! Oh, tee-hee.”
“And fuck, fuck, fuck. Cut.”
Twenty-seven takes later we were approaching the we-can-only-afford-three-takes bad-film-acting-budget-completion barrier.
“Sanford, how about I make him cry first? That might free up our afternoon,” my second dad asked my first director.
“Shame and giggling are next door neighbors,” offered my first girlfriend looking up from Acting for Dummies.
“Sanford, you need to handle this,” said the first producer. “The whole film can’t be one long blooper reel of your actor laughing uncontrollably.”
On the spectrum of talent, every one of the non-union actors in that film could be placed somewhere in the ROYGBIV hot red zone. To an actor we were reliably between extremely poor and hopelessly okay. After a week of lifeless footage, our best hope was to “shoot the moon” with all bad cards to borrow a metaphor from the game of Hearts.
With the exception of my second father, John MacKay. Sadly enough, he was good unfortunately — a high ace — and he blew the perfect bad hand.
You hear about actors working with stronger actors and the stronger actor carries the lesser actor. The lesser actor automatically gets to be better in a scene. Imagine, say, working with Meryl Streep and she’s so real and responds to you so organically that you forget you’re even acting. No offense, but even you could do it, hot stuff. These actors practically bring a weepy soundtrack. It was like that with John except he was yelling at me, and I believed it, and he was too real for me to stay in character.
Every time Second Dad circled his wooden executive table and started angling towards me, I found myself watching a film, not acting in one. Or I forgot my lines. Or I was frozen in awe. Call it “teenage terror.”
Sure, maybe a few times for a second or two John MacKay helped “merylstreep” me into the world of make-believe, but I fought back. I managed to giggle John all the way back over my tug-of-war line into theatrical unemployment.
“I think we have to go with what we have, Sanford. He didn’t giggle on that one.”
Towards the very end of filming there was one last night shoot.
My second father and I got to joking off set, and we wound ourselves in stitches laughing about Little League baseball. I made a joke about talentless right fielders too busy picking daises in the outfield to notice baseballs rolling up to them and stopping dead.
My second father laughed so hard he began snorting and wiping tears. (He was a snorter not a giggler.) Over the years I have repeated that joke about right-fielders picking daises but not a soul has ever found it the least bit funny. Maybe it was an inside second family joke.
But I have a hunch it wasn’t. Maybe his laughing at my jokes off camera was really an acting strategy for our relationship on camera. Maybe I was being manipulated like some 1930’s director telling Shirley Temple her puppy died (who, while extremely charming, was also something of a giggler.) This is my hunch because that night there was a third-act reconciliation between our father and son characters, and for one reason or another in the script he now admired his Teenage TV terrorist son, and he had one last scene that evening to prove it.
Or maybe it was genuine second-father-second-son camaraderie, but for a few minutes way, way out there in right field by the losing team scoreboard the Hysterical Teenage Giggler second son made his Big Bad Marine second father laugh.
Now that was the scene Sanford should have captured on film.
Feel something. Twice a week.