As a kid the number one question I was asked was “how’d you get on TV?”
It all began in 1973 when, by a stroke of luck, my father came home from work one day and said that he’d met a guy whose girlfriend, Dolores Reed, was a talent manager. The man had seen a picture of the three of us on my father’s desk and, owing to the commercial viability of red-headed kids at the time, mentioned us to Dolores and a meeting was quickly was arranged. It was the only time I ever met Dolores Reed and for the next fifteen years, like Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, Dolores Reed was never seen, only heard, existing only as a disembodied voice. And what a voice it was: all rasp, outer borough accent, and Runyon-esque street smarts. She sounded exactly like what you would expect a New York City talent manager to sound like.
Dolores’ specialty was TV commercials and she felt quite confident she could get us work. I was ecstatic because at the age of nine, I had already been planning to become a famous actor for what seemed like an eternity and this new development fit nicely into my master plan: to become an adult prematurely by going to work, thus summarily ending a childhood pockmarked by my parents’ acrimonious divorce and relentless bullying at school. Even then, I suppose I exhibited resilience and flexibility; if you’re childhood isn’t working out, just move on! So began my professional career on TV, but not without first having to overcome some major hurdles.
“Hi David, it’s Dolores. Is your mother there? I gotta call for your brother,” went the script. This would be the time to note that my brother Jonathan was completely ambivalent about being an actor. In fact he regarded each audition and its attendant requirement to travel thirty-five miles to and from Manhattan as a totally annoying distraction from his sports related extra curricular activities. My youngest brother, Robert, was too young to have an opinion. I, on the other hand, had no extra curricular activities and prioritized an audition over everything else including homework, for this was my life’s ambition, my dream. Having the drive and professionalism of a young Joan Crawford, I was prepared and ready to go work at once, but first I’d have to wait.
Given the disparity of interest in our new venture, I was understandably distraught when, shortly after we signed with Dolores, Jonathan booked a commercial for Stouffers Crumbcake — the very first time he was sent out. Now of course I loved my brother, but I felt certain I could love him much more if he were on a baseball field and I was on a film set. When it came to on-camera ambition, my fraternal love gave way to something much less appealing: pathological competitiveness. Matters were not helped by the fact that Jonathan continued to book commercials regularly throughout the first year of our relationship with Dolores while I failed to get a single audition! Not one! I simply could not understand the dearth of opportunities for someone with my level of enthusiasm and passion. For God’s sake, didn’t they know my life depended on this!
Being an indoor child, it was always I who answered the phone, eagerly hoping to hear the scraping sound of Dolores Reed’s voice, which to me sounded pleasant — filled with the hope of a better life and a ticket out of East Brunswick, New Jersey. “Hi David. I have a call. Is your mother there?” “Yes, Dolores, she is, but is this audition for me?” “No sweetie, not this time, it’s for your brother.” Though this scenario repeated itself week after week, month after month, I never got used to it or grew to accept my also-ran status. On the contrary, each of my brother’s successes only deepened my sense of resentment and cosmic wrongdoing. To make matters exponentially worse, Jonathan’s batting average for booking commercials was astonishingly good. In that first year alone, he booked a spot for Jell-O, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, Alpha-Bits cereal, and several other products that I’ve since blocked out my memory (though I did keep highly detailed list in a ledger book in which I assiduously notated every audition, call-back and booked commercial for all three of us. As 1973 gave way to 1974, my ledger column was — inconceivable as it seemed to me — completely blank, while my brother’s looked like the phone book). Jonathan also got his SAG card that first year, which — back in those days before the Screen Actors’ Guild bargained away cable television in what must certainly be regarded as the most shortsighted decision ever made by a major union — actually meant something. In 1973, a SAG card was the holy grail and all I knew was that Jonathan had one and I didn’t.
Finally in the late Spring of ’74 my fortunes improved. “David, I’ve got good news,” Dolores said, aware by this time of my complete sense of rejection. “I have a call tomorrow for Lego and it’s for YOU!” For me?” I rejoined somewhat incredulously. Then, finally puffing up to my natural, full-blown Mama Rose size, I bellowed, “Mommy there’s an audition for Lego tomorrow and it’s not for Jon it’s for me! For ME! FOR ME!!
Next day we piled into the Impala wagon and we even brought along my best friend Mike Held for company and good luck. I patiently waited my turn. The audition went well enough but then something really awful happened: the casting director looked at my friend Mike who was, admittedly, a very good-looking, all-American kid, and said, “whose your friend? Does he want to audition?” I thought I must have misheard. This could not be happening. Here’s what I wanted to say: “oh him? He definitely does not want to audition, he is only here to support me and, you know, even if he wanted to audition he can’t you see, because he is actually unable to speak due to a terribly mysterious ailment that the doctors still can’t quite pinpoint, but thank you and here is Dolores Reed’s number if you need to reach me!” Here’s what I did say: nothing, because in that moment — caught betwixt two choices, what I knew to be right and brotherly and what I believed to be a miscarriage of justice of biblical proportion — I had myself become completely and utterly mute.
In a turn of events that makes this story almost like a fable, Michael Held got the part in the Lego commercial. Well, sort of. He definitely did get it and he definitely did shoot it, but proving that there was indeed a God, and making this story exactly like a fable, the spot never ran. I feigned empathy, which probably saved our friendship, but this happy turn of events did, in fact, pull me back from the precipice, for upon hearing the news that he, not I, had booked my very first audition after waiting a year and watching my brother book job after job, I had done exactly what you would expect a young boy of my temperament to do: I had taken to my bed and refused to eat. I had observed this in innumerable old movies as the heroine’s coping mechanism of choice and well, it just felt right.
Notes From The Honeycomb Hideout is a series of pieces about my life as a child actor.