You know you’re living in bountiful times when instead of getting a prudent, future-forward job that pays good money, you can instead follow your bliss. Anytime a responsible career choice can be easily supplanted by a fantasy job like “actor” or “musician” and still be a viable opportunity, you know the economy is on the upswing.
This was true in New York in the early 1990s. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without tripping over an aspiring rock star, comedian or playwright. It was not shocking to know one person in clown school, or another who had just graduated from Juilliard but sang opera on the A train platform.
In the ’90s I, too, would identify as “an actress” to anyone who asked because I was in acting class with a teacher from the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse. I was dividing my time between that, bartending and working as a personal assistant to Oscar winner, Shelley Winters.
One night, I went to a new, edgy comedy club known for occasional celebrity pop-ins. On any random night, you could be in the audience to see your aspiring comedian friend and Janeane Garofalo or Jerry Seinfeld would show up unannounced to try out new material. That night, comedian Laura Kightlinger was headlining. At one point in her act, she relentlessly made fun of my friends, and then me, which drew the attention of everyone in the club to us.
After the show, a cute, young, well-dressed guy singled me out to say, “You handled yourself really well. Would you like to come backstage to meet Laura?” His name was Nathan, and he seemed to know everyone at the club.
“That’s OK, I’m good. But, thanks.” I said. He was handsome, and my type, but my friends had already left. As I turned to walk out, he grabbed my arm and said, “Here’s my card. Call me if you need anything.”
OK, before you judge, it was the ’90s. Everybody had “cards,” so it wasn’t as weird as it sounds. But on his card under his name it said “Director” and bore the Law & Order logo. Suddenly, there was a lot I needed.
The next day, I told Shelley about him and, of course, she had a story. She always had stories. This one involved Lana Turner being discovered on the street in a similar fashion and ended with Shelley handing me her phone insisting I call Nathan right in front of her, which I did.
Nathan was happy to hear from me and invited me to the opening night of a play he was directing, asking if I would go as his date. Shelley, listening in on the other line, mouthed the word, “Go,” punctuated by an emphatic nod. So, I said, “yes,” which is how I began dating this young aspiring television director. Much of our courtship involved my hanging around the set of Law & Order and getting to see, firsthand, how a TV show was made.
One day on set, I ran into my acting teacher who was there to play a judge in an episode where a lawyer had been murdered. He was surprised to see me since he hadn’t seen my name on the call sheet.
“I’m dating the director,” I heard myself say. “Oh, are you?….Well, good for you, you should get yourself an audition.” And as he started to walk away, I stopped him. “Wait. Can I do that? Isn’t that unethical?” He laughed and said, “Please. That’s how most people break in. You have to use the connections you have.” He then wished me luck and walked into hair and makeup.
That day, when Nathan wrapped the cast and crew, I asked, “Can you get me an audition for like a one-line part or a day player? I just need the TV credit.” “Sure, no problem,” he replied.
Two days later, the casting office at Law & Order called me to set up a day and time. This being my first audition for television, I didn’t ask the right questions, so I had no idea what to expect. If I had had an agent, they would have asked if there was a script, and then they would have had it sent to the office so I could prepare. But I was a kid and didn’t know any of that. The only thing I knew was Wednesday at 11 a.m. Nothing more.
Wednesday came, and at the audition, I was handed a script with some lines highlighted in yellow. This made me nervous. The room was big and empty, with nothing in it but a large table with four people seated behind it. One was the person who was going to read the other role, and presumably I was to act the highlighted part. The fact that I hadn’t prepared made me even more nervous.
A bearded man said, “So, you’re the friend of Nathan’s?” Not “a” friend but “the” friend, like he knew who I was and how I got there. Then a woman in a suit said, “OK, begin when you’re ready.”
I decided to go for it and do the best I could under the circumstances. When I was done, the room was quiet. The bearded man broke the silence with, “Wow. You must be a really good kisser.” Oof. I wanted to die. I ran out of the room and went to Nathan’s. He put a call into the casting office to ask how I did. “Not good,” he was told. He asked if I could maybe play a dead body instead in an upcoming episode, for the credit. “That’s probably not a good idea,” they said. “She wasn’t even good enough to play a dead body.”
So anyways, happy 25th anniversary Law & Order. If you ever need a dead body, give me a call.