by Jeffrey Feingold
Who could imagine stumbling upon a dumpster full of furniture from a famous television show? Yet, in the “Merv Griffin Set” episode of the hit television show “Seinfeld,” Jerry and crazy Kramer are strolling along the street in New York City, when Kramer realizes the dumpster on the sidewalk in front of them is full of furnishings from the set of the “Merv Griffin Show.” Merv was a famous television personality whose talk show was a huge hit for two decades in the 1960s and 70s. So crazy Kramer – being crazy Kramer – arranges to have the dumpster full of Merv Griffin set furniture delivered to his apartment, where he uses it to re-create the set of the Merv Griffin Show. He then proceeds to imitate Merv Griffin and “interview” the other Seinfeld characters as they stop by his apartment to visit, as usual, only now to find to their astonishment that he’s turned his entire studio apartment into the Merv Griffin set, and that he’s apparently gone off his rocker, interviewing them as if they were his guests on the show.
And now here I was, years later, sitting on that very same clear plastic Lucite furniture from the “Merv Griffin Show.”
After playing (nights and weekends) in a traditional Irish band for a decade, and wanting an artistic change, I had decided to turn my attention to acting (I’d acted as a youth and loved it). My daytime gig was in business, but I needed more. So nights and weekends, I now tried breaking into the acting biz. One night, in the wee hours, my phone rang.
“Darling, darling” my agent, Frieda, said after I picked up the phone, “wake up! Have I got a role for you! And it’s in New York! On the Seinfeld show!” She often yelled every sentence with great excitement. I was still groggy from slumber but sensed something was wrong.
“Frieda,” I said, “I’d love to do some television work, but … wasn’t the Seinfeld show killed about ten years ago? The show’s over?”
“That’s right, darling!” she exclaimed, “this is thee-ater, darling! But it’s your chance, your golden moment! You just must audition and get the part! You’ll be great! I told them you’re perfect for it, darling: tall, snarky, Jewish, just like Seinfeld! I already sent an actor to audition for the role of George, darling, and now the director can’t wait to audition you! Only one thing, darling, it’s not exactly on Broadway!”
“It’s off Broadway?” I inquired.
“No darling, not quite … it’s off that!” she exclaimed.
“Just how far off?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not in Yonkers or Queens, is it?”
“Well, it’s somewhere in New York, darling! Oh, just two more things: they can’t use a blond, so dye your hair dark brown, like Jerry Seinfeld! Also, darling, lose ten pounds by the audition a week from tomorrow! Ta-ta, darling!”
Then the telephone line went dead. The nerve of some people, I thought, as I began drifting back to sleep. Who does she think she is? Dye my hair and lose ten pounds! I refuse to be treated this way. It will not stand. I will retain my dignity. I’d been struggling with this kind of treatment during my effort to break into the acting biz, and I found it so unsettling that I’d been thinking of quitting auditioning and giving up the acting dream. I felt comforted by these assurances as I drifted back to slumber. Then, later that morning, after I awoke, and after having one tablespoon of low-fat yogurt and a glass of water for breakfast, I left for the nearest pharmacy to buy dark brown hair dye.
I arrived early for the audition. Even knowing about the play already, it still felt strange walking onto the set of the “Merv Griffin Show” from twenty or thirty years ago. Absurd. I’d seen some episodes of the “Merv Griffin Show,” and so had seen on television the very set in which I was now standing. And I’d seen that Merv Griffin episode of Seinfeld, as I now stood – trying to look as brown-haired and snarky and New York City Jewish (though I’m a blond, reserved Bostonian) – as I could. Was Federico Fellini, that famous director of fantasy and the absurd, directing his first play, with me in it?
“This is Fellini-esque” I muttered out loud.
“Fellini’s dead,” I heard a deadpan voice say.
I looked behind me and there stood a short, balding, stocky man fidgeting with his round wire frame glasses. He wore a light-yellow dress shirt, buttoned up to his Adam’s apple, and a long, tan trench coat. Good Lord, I thought, it was George Costanza from “Seinfeld.” I mean, for a moment I thought it was him, that is, Jason Alexander, who played George on the show.
“Yeah. He’s dead. Stone cold dead,” he said, then, “Hi. I’m Bill.” Then he thrust out his hand for a handshake.
“My God, man,” I exclaimed as I shook his hand, “you look exactly like George. I mean, I thought you were Jason Alexander for a minute.”
“Not really,” he said, and added, “but my agent, Frieda – she’s a piece of work, let me tell you! – called me up a week before my audition and said I needed to gain ten pounds, shave off the middle part of the hair on top of my head, and buy fake glasses in time for my audition a week later. The nerve of some people!”
Bill not only looked like George Costanza. He walked like him, spoke like him, even fidgeted with his round wire-rimmed specs like him. Bill and I chatted for a bit as we waited on set. Turns out this was his first play in some time (as it was also for me), as he was mostly auditioning for movies. As we talked, I recognized that Bill – like me – was a “wannabe.” I’d found in my short one to two years in the acting business that there were two kinds of people on set. Most were “extras,” as they’re called in the industry. Bored househusbands or housewives, teachers or truckers, businessmen or businesswomen, who think, “gee, wouldn’t it be a hoot to get on a movie set for a day and check it out?” Just look at most movies, with hundreds, sometimes even thousands of characters on screen. Most are these curiosity seekers. These “extras.” But then, there are the “wannabees” like Bill, like me. The serious ones. The ones who dye our hair, or shave it off. The ones who lose ten pounds, or gain ten, in a week for our “craft.” The ones hoping to be noticed. That the next project will be the one breakthrough opportunity. A director or producer or agent or the Lord above or someone will notice us.
Bill and I were both accountants by day. But we’d started out acting earlier in life, before turning our backs on art to do something respectable and make a living. But over the years and decades, our souls were being suffocated. Inside the stocky, balding, now spectacled caterpillar that was Bill, a beautiful butterfly was yearning to break free, stretch its wings, and fly to the heavens. For some, it might be hard to see that butterfly, hidden inside the frame of this short, stocky, balding, spectacled man. But it was in there, alright.
Later that week, we each heard from Frieda that we got the part.
This all happened Summer of 2009. Bill and I became fast friends. He was working as an accountant for a company but was sick and tired of sitting behind a desk all day, year after year. He hoped to break into the acting biz. I too had been an accountant for too many years. But, three years earlier, I was able to get a job with a consulting firm. Now my job was out of the office, meeting people every day at their businesses. Much more suited to my personality. I tried to convince Bill that, he too, should leave his accounting job and try consulting. But, despite his complaints, his job paid the rent, and, anyway, he was mostly focused on breaking into the acting biz. Later that year, in 2009, I started my own consulting company. And just around then, Bill lost his accounting job. It was the tail end of one of the biggest financial crashes in United States history, and Bill was just one of the tens of thousands who lost their jobs. He thought it would be as good a time as any to try the career change I’d suggested, so he joined my new company. “There are only two conditions before I can offer you the job,” I told him. “First, grow your hair back. Second, lose ten pounds.”
Shortly after, we had meetings with clients in Phoenix and then Los Angeles. Rather than fly from Phoenix to LA, I’d arranged to rent an exotic car, an Aston Martin DBS. My dream car. Since I couldn’t be James Bond in the movies, I could at least drive his car this one time. Bill and I would fly to Phoenix, then, after our meetings there, would zip across the desert to LA, just like Daniel Craig zipping across the desert in “Quantum of Solace” the year before. I’d made reservations at “Shutters on the Beach,” a luxurious beach hotel with a chic ocean vibe which epitomized the breezy, elegant lifestyle of James Bond. At least, that’s what the hotel’s website said. I’d never heard of it before but had found it online. After Bill and I checked in, I told him I wanted to take the Aston and drive up to see my niece, who lived in Santa Barbara.
That night, driving back to Shutters after dinner, I had to swerve hard to avoid a great lot of timber which strangely was in the middle of the highway. I couldn’t swerve enough, though, and felt the thud thud thud as the lean Aston tires rolled over the timbers. I pulled off to the side of the road and inspected the tires, but none looked damaged. I then drove the rest of the way back to the hotel, checked the car with the valet, and went to bed.
The next morning, Bill and I had breakfast at Shutters. Our client meeting wasn’t until that afternoon, and I had paperwork to do meanwhile, so Bill asked to borrow the Aston and check out the town. I had the valet ticket, and, as it was valeted in my name, I walked out the front door with Bill. I gave the ticket to the valet so he could bring the Aston around for Bill.
Just then, an extraordinary thing happened. Jason Alexander strolled out the front door of the hotel and handed the valet his ticket. I learned later that the hotel was frequented by famous folks. There we stood, just me and the two George Costanzas. It hadn’t been that long since our Seinfeld play, so Bill hadn’t yet grown his hair or lost the weight he’d gained for the play. Bill and Jason Alexander stood within feet of each other, looking each other up and down. It must have been so strange for Jason, looking at “himself” standing in front of – himself. Like a scene from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Like Bill had been birthed by an alien seedpod. Is he here to kill me and assume my identity, I wondered if Jason wondered? Later, Bill told me how much he wanted to see Jason watch him drive off in an Aston Martin.
But then we got some terrible news.
The valet walked over to Bill and said, “excuse me, sir, are you the one with the Aston Martin?” Bill nodded proudly for all to see – especially Jason Alexander. “Well, we can’t bring it around,” the valet said, “because it’s got three flat tires.” Poor Bill looked crushed. Just then, the valet brought around Jason’s car. It was a little two door Toyota Prius. The two Bills shook hands and then Jason got into his car and puttered away.
Last Act and Epilogue
Later that morning, the exotic rental car company delivered a beautiful black Porsche Cayenne with saddle tan leather seats to me at the hotel. I let Bill drive as we checked out Santa Monica and then drove to LA for our meeting. The Cayenne was one of his dream cars, Bill said. So, despite the Aston Martin debacle, and despite not becoming a full-time actor for a living, at least a little drop of Bill’s dreams were coming true.
“You know, Bill,” I said to him as the warm California air blew through the open windows of the Porsche, and bright sunshine streamed down though the open sunroof, “it’s time to be grateful for what we have. It’s time to put away childish things.”
Bill pulled the Porsche into a coffee shop. In my briefcase, I still had the script for the “Merv Griffin Set” play. There was a small dumpster at the back of the coffee shop parking lot. I tossed the script into the dumpster.
I never auditioned again.
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