brucekluger.com

    The New York Times, May 8, 2005

    City Sunday: New York Observed
    The Casting Kuchen  

    By Bruce Kluger


    I got off the subway at 72nd Street. The stop was
    just a few blocks from my final destination, the ABC-
    TV studios. It was also near a bakery, which was an
    important part of the plan.

    I'd moved to New York from Maryland a year earlier,
    having spent most of the past 12 months attending
    practically every nonunion audition that was listed
    in the trade papers. Like most of my ilk, I'd come to
    the city bolstered in confidence by the many lead
    roles I'd landed in high school and college theater
    productions, convinced that my success on their
    smaller stages was but a taste of the Broadway stardom to come. I was showbiz
    through and throughclipping every casting announcement, poring through the
    audition listings, and breathlessly awaiting May, when Tony nominations were
    announced (as they will be on Tuesday).

    But like most struggling actors, I was getting a crash course in broken dreams, as
    time after time audition monitors gently ushered me out the door.

    Having endlessly recited Puck's opening monologue from A Midsummer Night's
    Dream, demonstrated several hundred rudimentary time-steps and sung 32 bars of
    Embraceable You until I was blue in the faceall to no availI'd finally decided it
    was time for a Hail Mary pass.

    Stepping up to the counter of the bakery, I ordered the largest, cheapest sheet
    cake available, a big yellow sponge with no decoration. Clearly perplexed by my no-
    frills request, the clerk asked me if I was sure I didn't want icing.

    "That costs extra, right?" I inquired.

    "Yes," said the clerk.

    "Then make it plain, please."

    When you spend most of your days among would-be actors, you quickly learn that
    the conventional route to fame isn't always the most successful. Busloads of
    hopefuls pull into Port Authority every day, only to beat a hasty retreat back to
    Pittsburgh or Omaha (or, well, Maryland) within a year, most of them never having
    stepped onto a stage, all of them having taken a healthy haymaker to their egos.

    The canniest actors, I learned, were those who managed to elbow their way into the
    starmakers' inner circle via the most unexpected, sometimes outrageous tactics.

    One fellow I knew got himself an agent by sending her a box of fortune cookies,
    whose tiny proverbs he'd extracted with a sewing needle, then replaced with small
    strips of paper bearing his name and phone number.

    Another delivered a bowl of live goldfish to a casting office, convinced that
    whenever it was time to feed the fish, the casting director would fondly recall their
    talented former foster father.

    Still another actor, pretty desperate, crashed a closed-set rehearsal for the new
    Francis Ford Coppola movie The Cotton Club at the Astoria Studio in Queens,
    quietly insinuating himself among the cast during an improvised scene. To the
    actor's astonishment, Mr. Coppola unwittingly placed him at a small table with the
    film's star, Richard Gere, then instructed the two to exchange extemporaneous lines
    of dialogue. The daring perpetrator turned himself in to the director immediately
    afterward, hoping to earn a congratulatory slap on the back and a small part in the
    film. Instead, he was instantly shown the exit.

    But back to my sheet cake. Sitting down at a table in the bakery, I reached into my
    knapsack and pulled out a black-and-white 8-by-10 glossy of my face. Using
    scissors, I cropped the shot to recreate the shape of a television screen; then
    placing the photo on top of the cake, I applied icing (also from my knapsack)
    around the picture, drawing a makeshift television set, complete with antenna and
    dial. Above the image, I iced the words: "Put Me on TV!"

    Satisfied with my frostmanship, I closed the box, then reached into the knapsack for
    the last of my props: the apron and bow tie I was required to wear for my table-
    waiting job at night. Donning the apparel and hoisting the cake onto my shoulder, I
    made my way to the ABC studios.

    I took a deep breath as I pushed open the glass door at ABC. Having spent a good
    part of my teens as a stage-door Johnny at Broadway shows, I knew that the key to
    trespassing was to look nonchalant.

    "Can I help you?" the security guard asked.

    "Delivery for Mary Jo Slater," I snapped efficiently. "What floor, please?"

    Mary Jo Slater was the casting director for ABC's New York-based soap operas,
    among them, One Life to Live.

    "Third floor," said the security guard.

    I quickly found my way to Ms. Slater's office, buzzed past her receptionist and
    walked straight in. She was on the phone.

    "Cake delivery for Mary Jo Slater," I announced, setting the box on her desk.

    Ms. Slater was obviously confused. ''But I didn't order a cake'' she began.

    "Yes, you did," I insisted.

    I then snapped open the strings to the box and lifted the lid. Ms. Slater took a look
    inside, then leaned back in her chair.

    "Well, now I've seen it all," she said to the person on the other end of the line,
    sending me a half-glare, half-smile. "Some actor just gave me a cake with his
    picture on the front. I'll call you back."

    Ms. Slater hung up, and I stood mutely, waiting for the heave-ho. This was not to be.

    "O.K.," she said, "you got yourself an audition. I'm holding a casting call tomorrow
    for a small role in One Life to Live. Here's the script. Go outside and make an
    appointment. I'll see you in the morning."

    I can't recall the details of the next few hours, so giddily triumphant I was at the
    success of my ruse. What I do remember is that Ms. Slater seemed less irritated by
    my invasion than impressed by my creativity.

    I also felt vindicated. Like many of my fellow actors, I considered my back-channel
    victory a reasonable compensation for the routine humiliation I had experienced in
    the business. After all, when a person spends most of his time taking ruthless blows
    to his self-worth, why not try delivering a sucker punch of his own?

    My audition the next morning brought me back to earth. Although I handled my
    dialogue respectfully, my on-camera look, I'm afraid, is more Richard Dreyfuss than
    Richard Gere. The tryout over in a heartbeat, I was back to waiting on tables that
    night.

    Which is not to say I didn't make it on television in the end. A few months later I was
    up at 2 a.m. watching The Joe Franklin Show, the local talk program featuring New
    York's ageless television and radio veteran. Mr. Franklin's guests that night were
    Mary Jo Slater and another New York casting director, Joy Todd, who each
    recounted the most outrageous stunt an actor had ever pulled to get an audition.

    Ms. Slater recalled the cake saga in vivid detail (though she couldn't recall my
    name), while Ms. Todd told of an actor who had busted into her office with a giant
    stuffed duck, his picture and résumé tied to the duck's webbed foot, carrier pigeon
    style.

    I smiled. What none of them knew was that the guys with the cake and the stuffed
    ducknot to mention the Cotton Club infiltrator and the fellows with the fortune
    cookies and the goldfishwere all me.