🎬 Actor: The Bet
A bet with a college roommate leads to twelve rollercoaster years in the entertainment business.
“I’ll bet you a $100 I can get into a movie in ten screen tests.”
It was the summer after my Freshman year at Columbia. I rented a room in a fraternity on 113th Street, a few blocks south of campus. For $150 a month I didn’t have to return home, possibly, hopefully, ever again. I was addicted to New York City. Leaving the city was like holding your breath and diving.
My room that summer was a space crafted out of a larger bedroom from two-by-fours and shoddy drywall. It had ten-foot Victorian drapes repurposed for a doorway. I thumbtacked Keith Haring and a Last Waltz movie poster onto the walls. I kept a shoebox stuffed with high school love letters and oversized Valentine’s cards. I had a Bible that hadn’t been opened in nine months and a three-ring binder of Freshman Comp essays savaged in red pen and triple question marks.
The fraternity had been coopted by transfer students. None of them cared about fraternities in the least. They did only enough to keep the charter active and the university housing department at bay.
Two of my fraternity mates spoke multiple Asian languages. Another, a hard-core conservative and member of the debate team, had already been published in a political journal, another chained Dodge Hall shut and gave anti-Apartheid speeches on the steps with a megaphone. I admired all of them. They were exactly who I’d hoped to meet at Columbia.
The guys were slyly caring. They allowed a destitute former grad student who’d suffered a brain injury to hang out in the front room with his dog Shep and the physics books he still carted around. In that same front room we played ping ping on an uneven table by the huge fireplace. We yelled up the stairs when calls came through on the basement stairs pay phone. We scribbled phone numbers on the bare plaster.
Visiting girlfriends made a point of not sitting on the dirty, broken couches, and they laughed with their friends about not touching anything in the building — anything, that is, besides bare pillows and the sheets coming free from their boyfriends’ mattresses.
We grinned in our beds when jokesters called out to keep it down up there, and the stairwell exploded with pent-up laughter.
By the end of my first year, the faintest outlines of a professional future had begun to emerge in mental sketches of maybes and erasures. I played electric guitar obsessively. Maybe I’d be a musician. I’d been the editor of my high school newspaper. Maybe I’d be a journalist. I majored in Russian Language & Literature. Maybe I’d be a journalist in Russia playing electric guitar with my embassy comrades. I wasn’t exceptional in any of my interests, but I was competent in each of them.
And if I hadn’t read the scandalously intrusive contract for working for the NSA on a frat brother’s desk, I might have become a spy, but a spy in a friendly way, like an in From Russia With Love way, in it for the mysterious, wary girls with the high cheekbones.
That hot summer, doors spilled open onto everything.
The $100 bet didn’t come out nowhere.
A friend and I had been on the steps of Low Library when he pointed out a student walking past us. The guy was starring in a movie called Gremlins. This was mind-blowing to me. That a college student could be in a movie was as farfetched as a classmate being an astronaut.
An Italian girlfriend had her hand in the bet. A few weeks prior, I’d sat down next her in a McDonald’s on 69th street and Broadway, and she surrendered to the chatter and agreed to go out with me. She was moving back to Rome to live with her mother. The two of us hung out endlessly as that romantic clock wound down.
We were in Midtown at midnight, making out in the quiet of a skyscraper’s public garden. She had seen Gremlins, and she promised me I was better looking than my classmate. “Good looking” was my only known criteria for being in a movie. She squeezed my mouth together with the tips of her fingers, shook my head back and forth, and said you’re so pretty, Adam. With a flap of her Italian butterfly wings she changed the next decade of my life.
So while my freshman year roommate sat on one of the dilapidated, sunken couches in the frat common room, I threw the $100 bet out there.
“Ten screen tests.”
He took my bet. We sealed it with a handshake and a laugh. He didn’t even want to win. He’d bought into the bravado. He was happy to lose for the adventure of being close to such an outrageous outcome.
I’d never been on a stage. I had no resume. I had no headshot. I didn’t know there hadn’t been screen tests since the 1950’s.
But I won the bet.
Yesterday, when I texted my friend, he no longer remembered any of this. Nothing.
Forty years on, I’m taking stock of what I won — and lost — in the twelve rollercoaster years that followed that handshake.
Oddly enough, writing this preface, I’m aware for the first time of how much I lost – the loss started immediately – of everything I’ve shared above, right down to the teenage bravado.
More than aware. Concerned even. Surprised by the surfacing regret.
Regret isn’t at all what I planned writing about. I imagined a few tidy essays on my time in the movies.
Feel something. Twice a week.
Other Voices, This One from a Dog:
A crazy one: I have listened to Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones about 8000 times. Yesterday morning I heard a dog bark in the background on the three and of the second measure of Slave. Have a great day.