by Leon Acord
A droll, oddly inspirational memoir from the actor Breitbart once called “a gay leftist activist,” SUB-LEBRITY by Leon Acord (Old Dogs & New Tricks) is an honest, sometimes bitchy but always sincere story about growing up (very) gay in rural Indiana, achieving acting success outside the closet, and generating headlines with his very-public smackdown with Trump-loving Susan Olsen (Cindy, The Brady Bunch)
I’d never listened to “Two Chicks Talkin’ Politics” before. But some friends had, and they urged me to reconsider. Sheena was a big-hearted liberal, but she was also soft-spoken and new age-y. Susan [Olsen] was a loud, rabid Trump fanatic. I was walking into a trap, they warned.
I checked out Cindy’s – I mean, Susan’s – Facebook page. Whoa.
While I felt confident I could hold my own, I shared my concerns with Sheena. She promised she would moderate and not allow the discussion to de-evolve into a shouting match. While it had at times been difficult to continue the show with Susan, she said, she had lots of practice dealing with her good friend. Nonetheless, Sheena told me she expected me to “play nice.”
Before the show, I crammed on the facts like a pre-law student studying for the bar exam.
I arrived at the LA Talk Radio studios prepared and calm. Sheena greeted me in the lobby. She warned me Susan invited a friend – a fellow Trump fanatic – to appear on the show opposite me for “balance.” Uh oh. Instead of interviewing me about my thoughts on politics, they clearly wanted me to debate politics.
I suddenly felt like Rosie O’Donnell on her last day at The View.
Sheena walked me into the booth and introduced me to Susan’s friend. We waited for Susan, who was dangerously close to being late.
Susan eventually rushed into the booth in a flurry, a fountain of apologies. Migraines had caused her to oversleep, she said – never mind that it was just shy of 5 p.m. She didn’t hear her alarm because she’d been sleeping in a metal helmet that Larry King’s wife had given her. Mrs. King guaranteed sleeping in the helmet would rid her of headaches, Susan explained – but it just wasn’t working!
As the “On Air” light switched on, I thought to myself, Cindy Brady is nuts.
“Rapidly Changing Channels” by Leon Acord
Recent, rapid technological advances have been huge game-changers in show business. Yes, it’s made exposure more accessible to all. It even helped me finally create my own sitcom after over twenty years in the industry.
But it’s altered film and TV as much as the publishing and music industries, in ways large and small. Sometimes I barely recognize my industry at all anymore.
Television had already changed drastically since the 1970s, when it first inspired me to be an actor. But advances in just the past decade are mind-boggling. When we first launched Old Dogs & New Tricks in 2011, Amazon was just a place to buy CDs and books. Netflix was still in the DVD rental business.
Now, every company short of the Waffle House has its own “network.” Netflix, Hulu and Amazon dominate the Emmys as HBO once had. Literally hundreds of shows come and go. It seems next to impossible to keep up with so many shows, harder still to accomplish “market penetration.” Small loyal audiences are now just as impressive to advertisers as casual large audiences.
There is a plus side. Once the bastard stepchild of Hollywood, the television industry is now more respected than the feature film industry.
On the downside, it’s harder than ever for unknowns to break in.
When I grew up watching TV, there was a stable of journeyman actors, respected in the industry but otherwise unknown – actors you’d recognize in the supermarket without remembering their names – who made their careers in guest-starring roles, season after season.
Those days are long gone.
With so many former “big names” now scrambling for work – any work – those one-and-done episodic guest roles now go to them. It’s called “stunt casting” and it gets ratings. I know; I’ve done it myself when casting guest stars on Old Dogs & New Tricks.
Perhaps the biggest alteration in the show-biz fabric? You’re holding it in your hands. Its social media.
To stay relevant, stars and wannabes alike must post constantly – fab photos on Instagram, witty political bytes on Twitter, upcoming appearances on Facebook. (And even more apps this old fart doesn’t use.)
Producers, networks, casting people want “influencers.” Now, the number of followers an actor has is often as important as the amount of talent s/he offers – sadly, sometimes more important. It often makes the difference between who gets the part and who doesn’t.
Some young “actors” make mint not by starring in some sitcom or releasing a hit song, but by simply posting photos of themselves drinking this energy drink, wearing those sneakers, checking into that hotel.
Speaking of social media, there’s a reason your favorite A-List movie stars are lining up to star in TV series on cable and streaming services, and not just because the quality now exceeds films, or because the seasons are usually shorter than network shows.
In today’s blink-and-the-conversation’s-moved-on era of total media saturation and one million channels, stars (and their managers and agents) realize starring in one big-budget film every 12 or 18 months isn’t enough to stay in the dialogue longer than a week or two. By next week, everyone will be talking about something else. New product is needed constantly to keep fans engaged, and you need to be in as much of it as possible.
It’s all just too exhausting to think about.
Laurence tells me, I’m a better actor now than I’ve ever been. And he’s right. I have chops. My emotions are fluid. I no longer require “prep time” to “get into character.”
The irony is, while I’m better than ever, I’ve never had fewer opportunities.
I’ve also never felt less ambitious to chase after them – which may be the biggest seismic change (at least personally) of all!
But even auditioning is completely different now – altered even before COVID-19 sent us all home. Self-tape? Seriously? That’s no fun! I don’t like taking selfies!
I’ve also been spoiled rotten by working with a thoroughly prepared and professional crew and cast on Old Dogs & New Tricks. It’s much harder to bite my tongue now when new colleagues don’t match the professionalism to which I’ve grown accustomed. Sometimes I don’t bite my tongue at all – not the best way to generate work or a reputation. Case in point:
Huddled in a shadowy North Hollywood storefront to avoid the blistering sunshine, actor Wenzel Jonesand I waited for our extremely late director to show up for rehearsal. When the director arrived some twenty-plus minutes later, he informed us he lost the keys to the theatre. We’d have to rehearse on the roof, he said, until the theatre owner showed up.
“I am not rehearsing on the roof in this heat!” I snapped. And I didn’t stop there. “I expect my director to be inside the theatre, waiting and ready to start rehearsal on time. Why should we care about being punctual if you don’t?”
Rightly cowed, the director scrambled off. Feeling instantly guilty, I turned to Wenzel.
“Why can’t I be one of those actors who can go off on a director without immediately feeling bad afterwards?”
“There’s a name for actors like that, Leon,” Wenzel deadpanned. “They’re called ‘stars.’”
One thing I know: I am not, never have been, and never will be a “star.” I know what I am. And I’m quite happy with my obscure status of “sub-lebrity.” Perhaps now more than ever!
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Leon Acord is an award-winning actor and writer who has appeared in over 35 films you’ve never seen and 30 plays you’ve never heard of. Possible exceptions include the digital TV series Old Dogs & New Tricks on Amazon Prime Video (which he created, wrote & co-produced), and the stage hit Carved in Stone (in which he played Quentin Crisp in both SF and LA productions). His memoir, SUB-LEBRITY: The Queer Life of a Show-Biz Footnote, is now available in paperback & e-book on Amazon. He wrote his one-man show Last Sunday in June (1996) and co-authored the 2014 play Setting the Record Gay. He was a “Take Five” columnist for Back Stage West throughout 2009 and a former contributor to Huffington Post. He has also written for San Francisco Examiner and the journal Human Prospect. He currently lives in West LA with husband Laurence Whiting & their cat Toby. Learn more at www.LeonAcord.com
Old Dogs & New Tricks website: www.odnt.tv
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