Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Actor's Life

Wayne Robson was a character actor I knew from his appearance in The Grey Fox,  one of the great Canadian movies and one directed by my close friend Phil Borsos, who passed away at the age of 41.

Wayne however, stuck around for awhile and was always working. He began with a small role in Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Warren Beatty, and went on to a full career mostly as a character actor.

Besides working in dozens of Canadian television series, he did American features that came to Canada to film. He also had parts in Incredible Hulk, Anne Of Green Gables and even Popeye with Robin Williams.

An actor's life has to be one of the hardest and often cruelest of any job you'd want. For one, you are always rejected and  not particularly because of your experience or craft, many times simply because of the way you look.

It can be said that a lot of people lose jobs because of the way they look, but actors can face this several times a day.

One of the best things about writing is that writers don't necessarily need a job in order to write. They can sit down and write a spec script that maybe can be sold or used as a sample of what that writer is capable of. My Christmas script, produced in 2010 was just that. I wrote it based on an experience I had. The script hung around Hallmark for 3 years, but then it was made.

And I got paid.

If I hadn't decided to write a spec about Christmas I would never have made a dime.

But actors, and for that matter, everybody else on a film set or studio, have to be hired before they can work. And of them all, actors are probably at the bottom of the list. Writers in WGA number around 8000, they won't really give an accurate number. Directors are less.

But actors number 200,000, according to Wikepedia. And that's only the ones in SAG, the actors union.

One way to have any kind of a career is to be a character actor. A good one always gets work. What's a character actor? It's not the star. Rather it's a supporting role, often smaller than the secondary stars. And they usually play the same type of part, the store owner or the buddy or the truckdriver. Actors like Dub Taylor, Strother Martin (who said the most famous line of any character actor ever, "What we got here is a failure to communicate", said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

For women you have great character actresses like Cloris Leachman and Betty White and younger ones like Joan Cusak.

You see them in western movies, of which there are fewer and you see them in thrillers and sci-fi movies. They're usually there for maybe a few minutes, but you always seem to remember them.

Wayne perfected the Canadian character actor, he played second fiddle to the lead actors but could steal a scene simply by smiling. I once worked with Stuart Margolin, who had a great part in Rockford Files, an 80's series. Stuart was a co-star in a series I worked on and he was a master of stealing a scene. The lead actor could be talking and yet you'd be watching Stuart. How he does that, I don't know. But it works.

Another good thing about character actors is what I said above. They always work.

Most actors, if not all, become actors to be successful. I'm sure they all have the dream of being the star in a movie or play. The reality is so far from that. Average income for actors is around $8000 for the year. And the chances of being a star are less than winning at a lottery.

But a good director will surround the star with character actors. Wayne had that "little guy" thing that he did, and an engaging smile and you'd just like him in the scene, even if he just stood there.  He was familiar and comforting. That's the secret of a character actor.

Wayne died in his sleep. He was at Stratford, home to Canada's premiere theater stage. Many of the best actors in Canada worked that theater. Wayne was set to perform as Grandpa in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which is to begin in June. As a friend of mine said, what better way for an actor to pass away, but to be rehearsing a great part at the best theater in Canada working with the best actors.

As a dying vaudville actor once said "dying is easy, comedy is hard".

We'll miss that smile, Wayne.