Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Star Whackers

"They are demons dispatched by Satan to lower the standards!" -- Bill Hicks

The first time I met Randy Quaid, he was in shackles. They weren't the real kind, like the ones he may be wearing today as he sits in a Vancouver jail fighting an extradition warrant and claiming refugee status to escape "The Star Whackers".

quaid 1

The shackles he wore at our first meeting were movie props on the set of "The Last Detail". The film was Randy's first major role and it would lead to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

We worked together for about a week, just a couple of young actors star struck by the presence of cinema luminaries like Jack Nicholson and Hal Ashby and hoping they'd be happy with our work.

A year earlier he'd been a janitor in LA, having ridden there by bus from Texas after making a notable debut in "The Last Picture Show".

Decades later, after a career studded with brilliant performances in such iconic films as "Midnight Express", "The Missouri Breaks", "The Long Riders", "Christmas Vacation", "Brokeback Mountain" and more than 100 others, he's abundantly proven his talents.

Recently, however, he seems to have fallen on hard times, with the good films fewer and further between combined with a number of run-ins with the law.

I don't know if he has personal problems, medical problems, substance abuse issues or whatever else might be behind what's happened to him. But I do know that when he says there are "Star Whackers" out to finish him off he's not lost in some fantasy world.

The "Star Whackers" actually exist.

I have personally seen them at work.

I have witnessed their destruction of many a fine artist and successful career.

Unfortunately, the "take-everything-far-too-literally" entertainment media, who seem to treat celebrity quotes the way Christian and Islamic fanatics interpret their holy scriptures, think Randy is talking about some shadowy group of psychotic killers stalking the streets of Beverly Hills.

He's not.

Nor is he in the grip of some paranoid delusion when he says that said "Star Whackers" killed Heath Ledger and David Carradine and he might be next.

I'm sure he's painfully aware that Mr. Ledger took an overdose of prescription medicine and Mr. Carradine succumbed to auto-erotic asphyxia. He probably doesn't even spend much time wondering whether the deaths of those two close friends was accidental or of their own choosing.

What he knows with certainty is that the "Star Whackers" drove both men to seek solace in the instruments which ultimately ended their lives and he can quite conceivably see himself meeting the same fate.

This is a tough business. You fight hard to get to the top, battling rejection, dejection and outright heartbreak, giving up valued aspects of Life to realize your dreams. Once you get to the top, you discover you have to fight even harder to stay there, ever aware of what's been lost for what's been gained.

That breaks some people. It forces others onto paths that make no sense to those who never had need to walk them.

ledger 1

I once shared a quick handshake with Heath Ledger.  He was in Australia for the opening of "The Patriot" his first major Hollywood film. One of the last things he'd done down under was a short-lived series called "Roar" which was manned by the same crew I was working with making "Beastmaster". And they were all eager to see him again and celebrate his success.

During the premiere, somebody in the film asks Ledger's character where he learned to ride. The stunt coordinator of both TV series seated in the back row hollered out "I did!" and a laughing Heath shouted back, "He's not lying!"

Watching Ledger with his friends later reminded me of a lot of actors I've met over the years. Guys just starting out and brimming with life and talent, knowing they have something special and aching to show it to the world.

After his death I spoke to some of those we'd both worked with. The Heath Ledger of his final days was not the one any of them remembered. They reasoned all the tiny cuts had finally been too much to bear or to keep a clear head while handling.


David Carradine I met a lot when he was making the "Kung Fu" series reboot in Toronto. The shows I was working on shared a lot of cast and crew back and forth with his and it was routine to drop by their studio to talk to next week's director or last week's guest star who needed to come back for some ADR.

The stories of Carradine's alcohol abuse were legion and legendary. I was told about days when he couldn't even stand up so he was laid on the studio floor with a filing cabinet on its back next to him and the camera above so it would appear he was standing up and part of the scene.

Sometimes the various attempts of co-workers to intervene or ameliorate David's affliction would have some success and his talents would re-emerge, but sooner or later the "Star Whackers" would come calling and he'd spiral down again.

The post-mortem consensus among most of his co-workers was that they didn't know how he had managed to take it for so long.

Who are the "Star Whackers"...? David Mamet describes them this way:

"These folk, with nothing much to do, and in the manner of functionaries down through time, schemed all their waking hours to increase and consolidate power."

In Hollywood, there are two ways to become powerful. By creating something or by destroying someone else's dream.

When I first began meeting studio and network executives in social rather than professional settings, I noticed that many of them had the same unusual tic. They'd be talking about one thing or another and the conversation would drift to territory in which they had secret information.

They would always make these half turns in their chairs, shooting quick glances to make sure they wouldn't be heard, then lean close and softly feed you a piece of incredibly salacious dirt.

Over time, or on days when tidbits were forthcoming from several sources, I began to realize that what one of these minions was telling me contradicted what I'd been served from somebody else.

A wise cop I once knew told me he never believed anything a confidential informant told him. He just filed it. If he heard the same thing from a second informant, he pulled that jacket from the files. But he still didn't do anything.

If, however, the same information came from a third source, then he could act.

His reasoning was that all kinds of people are trying to put all manner of things over on all sorts of other people for reasons he had neither the time nor intellectual capacity to untangle.

Therefore, always wait until you know for certain which way the wind is blowing. Only then can you find a true course.

Actors, perhaps more than other creatives, are at the greatest risk of being buffeted by what's said about them -- and especially those actors who have achieved some modicum of recognition.

It's their faces that sell newspapers and tabloid magazines and entertainment gossip shows.

They make enemies by not liking a script to which some producer needs their attachment to be green-lit. They get on the wrong side of agents they won't dump their old agency to join. They irk publicists by turning down repetitive interviews or refusing to come up with a chili recipe in order to get squeezed into a magazine they've never heard of. They chafe other performers by beating them out of cherished roles or getting better reviews.

They sleep with the wrong people or don't get into bed with those who believe they're the right ones.

I've seen network and studio executives trash their own stars, the very people who are saving their jobs or keeping their kids in private schools because they wanted minimal raises, a 12 hour turnaround or even a couple of days off because a member of their family has died.

On virtually ever show I've staffed I've fielded calls from someone within the industry wanting details on some story they've heard about a member of my cast. I usually let them spin their wheels until we get to the inevitable. "Anyway, that's what I've heard…"

"From who?"

There's never an answer to that.

The first rule of "Star Whackers" is nobody ever identifies a "Star Whacker". You never know if they actually heard something or they just made it up themselves because -- well, because it might "increase or consolidate their power".

Or what they think is power.

Less than 24 hours after Randy Quaid was jailed in Vancouver, Toronto Producer Ari Lantos was feeding the media frenzy by talking up his own experience with the troubled or troublesome star.

Reading of his trials and tribulations while working with Quaid on a film called "Real Time", you almost feel sorry for Lantos; best known for co-producing a couple of barely released films that haven't made a dime and the hardly watched CBC series "Men with Brooms".

It seems the actor's main artistic transgression was in choosing to portray his character as an Australian even though his background is of no consequence in the script or to the finished product.

So if it made no difference why bring it up…?

1. Because it creates the perception that the reason the movie didn't make any money might've had something to do with its unfortunate choice of cast rather than what might be more correctly laid at the feet of someone else?

Sometimes actors make choices that seem outlandish, not because they're trying to be difficult but because they're not getting the creative assistance or direction that they need.

Sometimes they're just finding some way to challenge themselves or to get motivated enough to come to work in the morning because no other logical reason exists.

If you have the misfortune to sit through "Real Time" you'll know what I mean.

2. Because it gets you on the good side of somebody who already has a beef with Mr. Quaid?

Five years ago, Quaid filed suit against the distributor of "Brokeback Mountain", seeking $10 million and claiming he had agreed to work for less money because he'd been told the film was "a low-budget, art-house film, with no prospect of making any money."

It has so far earned over $210 Million.

3. Because you've got another movie coming out soon and it never hurts to have your name bandied about?

Kid, I know you're still green, so I'll cut you some slack here.

If you think you can best build your reputation by kicking somebody when they're down that's your call.

But I'm not the only one in the business who could tell you completely verifiable stories about people you admire or maybe want to emulate that would make you vomit blood.

Sometimes I think we should tell those stories.

And then I realize that would make us no better than the "Star Whackers".

Instead of joining the crowd screaming for blood around the Guillotine, please keep Randy Quaid in your prayers. If you don't pray, at least do a little hoping that he finds a way to overcome this ignominious moment and get back to doing what he does best.

There are already enough people trying to destroy him.

And they're very good at what they do.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading an article after John Hughes passed on, which mentioned his departure from Hollywood. Among his reasons (including finding a better place for his kids to grow up) listed were, "Because they killed my friend John Candy."

He didn't use the term "starwhackers", but I understood immediately what he meant.

Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks for the kindly reminder not only that people are actors but that actors are people.

I was travelling last month and not able to post this piece about Maury Chaykin in the New York Times: