After you get so you can make it with other people,
and make it with yourself, there’s still work to be done;
you still have the main party to deal with…
—from Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
I’ve had nothing yet, so I can’t take more.
—Alice in Wonderland
What is important to me is not the truth outside myself,
but the truth within myself.
By 1969 the Oxford Theater construction was complete. Since joining the theater in 1966, I worked as a carpenter while attending acting classes there. Now it was a 176-seat traditional theater with the option to rearrange the first five rows on either side of the aisle, creating a thrust stage. The seats were donated and recovered by students. We built a proscenium arch with plywood, raised it with ropes through the attic, and secured it to an existing beam. I spent a couple weeks listening to music while sitting with spackling and a putty knife (and an occasional jug of wine) on top of a 22’ narrow platform creating texture on the arch and later painting it. The arch remains today, and inside are items each student thought pertinent to the times and the effort, articles like books or magazines, a couple stuffed animals, and photographs of each student actor. My contribution was a hammer head that had broken while pulling a nail from the old set.
I was called the Assistant Technical Director and Stage Manager. Over the preceding three years, I had gone from a diffident, naïve kid to someone who spoke his mind and worked well with others. Although I had been an introvert my entire life, I was nevertheless capable of taking giant leaps into the unknown. I was incautious despite my modest personality, impatient as well. These two traits haunted me like phantoms. I could not come to terms with acting as a serious pursuit, calling for dedication and surrender of such great magnitude. Acting required engaging in difficult personal inventory that I met with fear and recalcitrance.
For a while during the theater modifications, I had purpose. My efforts in carpentry and design work produced near immediate results—I would diagram or draw an idea and see it; I would join wood together in certain ways and it would stand upright as stairs or a wall that I could see. I felt rewarded in those pursuits. Theater receives its bounty in applause, but being a film actor is a roller coaster of elation and crushing disappointment. Between 1966 and 1969, I had a front row seat on that ride.
If there ever was a place where the bright flame of inspiration and freedom could steadily become infernal, it was Los Angeles in the 1960s. Like Icarus, I had been given wings, but the walls of the LA labyrinth were high. Even the gyre of air I walked through was heady, infused with constant consolation and encouragement. Like Alice, I ate the morsels of cake and drank from the bottle of promises, as I followed the white rabbit of fame and fortune, wandering through rooms too small and rooms that dwarfed me. I nearly drowned at times in the oceans of my tears. I was lost, sitting at the Mad Hatter’s table that was disappearing at both ends.
I drifted from devotion, filled with the delusions of myself and bolstered by great losses. The first of these came while I was at Malibu diving into the cold surf from a large rock just off shore. I had skirted my duties at the theater, telling myself I was getting tan for a possible Coppertone commercial interview in a few weeks. As I played in the Pacific, Michelangelo Antonioni paid a surprise visit to the Oxford Theater. He was casting for a film he was making called Zabriskie Point and was looking for a previously unknown young man in his late teens to plan the part. When I returned from Malibu, Jack Donner, the director of the theater lectured me on my lack of seriousness that led to my misfortune.
I had been at the beach with Ray King. Ray was the first student to make me feel at home when I joined the workshop. He had helped briefly with the demolition of the old stage and sets. Ray was a rich kid from Beverly Hills. He had short, curly red hair and freckled skin. He burned with so much anger he seemed to vibrate. He bit the inside of his cheek when he was nervous, which was almost always. Now that we were friends, his careless lifestyle provided me access to adventures I normally would have shunned. He emboldened me to do things like recite Shakespeare at 3 a.m. from the interior courtyard of the Hollywood Studio Club. Perhaps the most daring escapade took place in Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills. It was a warm night, and we were on the prowl in my 1948 Buick Roadmaster I had purchased for $75. The Pontiac Lemans I had first driven to California had been totaled by a drunk driver who rear-ended me. We parked the car to walk around and see the mansions and the overlooks. Before that night was over, we were caught swimming in the pool of a house for sale with an “open house” sign in the front. The pool was a luxurious Mediterranean blue, with fountains and a gas fireplace that reflected its flames off the water. So enthralled were we in this opulence, we did not notice the police cars that pulled into the magnificent driveway. The house belonged to Jack Nicholson, and there was damage to a chandelier, for which we were blamed. We went to court and were required to pay for the repairs by taking weekly installments to Nicholson’s secretary, Marilyn, at American International Studios. Irresponsible stunts like this with Ray King went on for a year or more, and when they became more than just mischief, I had to end our friendship.
For a while I returned to the dedication required of a serious actor. The roller coaster ride of Hollywood would lift me in a slow climb of interviews and readings, all the while clicking with a Svengali-like metronome of compliments and comparisons that drove me like chain being pulled by cogs in a massive machine.
In 1968, after a series of interviews, I was reading for the lead role in a film called Last Summer, opposite Barbara Hershey. The two candidates for the lead were me and Richard Thomas. I read for the director, Frank Perry, after suffering the indignities of interviews by casting directors and their assistants, sitting for hours, only to be dismissed with, “If we only had time for you.” I did not get the role of Peter in Last Summer; I “looked too old.” After months of climbing, the roller coaster peaked and sped me headlong into the depression of defeat.
Later in 1968, I read for the lead role in a film called Hail Hero. This time my competition was another young man named Michael Douglas. The film centered on the Vietnam War and the peace movement of the 1960s. I was against the war and had been drafted three times and rejected until I was designated 4F. For this film there were six interviews for which I spent hours preparing for each call back. Finally, it was Douglas and me. Unfortunately, this time I “looked too young.”
After Hail Hero, I interviewed for one more smaller role in a movie called The Grasshopper, staring Jaqueline Bisset and the football player Jim Brown. Like the others, this effort was filled with expectation and then heartache. Every ride on the roller coaster seemed the same as the last: months of interviews and call-backs, coaching sessions with agents, being fed the nectar of destiny, only to be disappointed again. I became disenchanted with acting. I asked to learn more about the technical end of theater and concentrated my efforts on stage management and lighting.
In the evenings, after work, I listened to music or joined the nightly gathering of friends drinking wine and talking about anything and everything: current events, philosophy, religion, etc. One of those evenings we were at Mike Amarino’s house, an English professor at UCLA who had been a student at the Oxford Theater for a short time. From a nearby chair, I picked up a large red book with a tattered hard cover and binding. It was a poetry anthology. I opened the book in the middle and saw a poem called “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelly. I sat silent, oblivious to the discussion in the room, as I read the poem over and over. When the room went quiet briefly, I heard Amarino say, “What are you reading, Rick?”
“Ozymandias, ” I replied. “What a powerful poem.”
“What is powerful about it to you?” asked Amarino.
I looked at him for a long pause as I tried to think why the poem affected me as it did.
“It has nothing to do with me, and yet it seems to have everything to do with me…weird, ” I said.
I read the poem to the people now listening to Mike and me. Some had heard it, and even they seemed moved again by it. Those for whom it was the first time, after a pause at the end, muttered thinks like, “wow, ” “cool, ” and “far out.” I was a bit dumbfounded in those seconds. I realized the people gazing at me thought I knew what the poem said, but if I did, it was a knowing inexpressible at the moment.
As I was leaving that evening, Mike stopped me and handed me the book. He smiled and said, “You can have this book, Rick. I’ve had it since college and was thinking of donating it. You seem interested in poetry; you take it.”
I didn’t think I was interested in poetry after one poem. I never considered some of the songs I liked as poetry then. But I thanked him and left with this raveled, red book, more marveling at its weight and thickness than its content. Once home, I began reading through sections of the poetry book and continued into the early morning.
After I put it down to go to sleep, my thoughts were filled with questions about what I was going to do now to earn a living. I had failed at the art of acting, I thought. I was not happy chasing fame and money. Do we find happiness by searching for something that contains it? Does happiness just come to us? What do I do to find happiness? I ruminated in my head as my eyes gave in to the dark and drowsiness found me…I had failed at art… I had failed at art. Then, a last thought entered through the doorway between the world I knew and dreams: what if happiness itself is an art…
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“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro