Recently, my husband’s great niece’s daughter, who is 3, saw him on a rerun of a Parks and Recreation episode, where he plays the cranky Councilman Milton, a misogynistic, racist, and largely decrepit city employee who sleeps more than he participates in the show’s council meetings. When his character is awake, he’s spouting ludicrous non-sequiturs, things that for anyone who knows him, are anathema to his perennial sweet and witty disposition. In other words, it’s a fun character that he really enjoyed playing, and, because he’s such a good actor, he was convincing in the role. When her mother pointed him out, their exchange went something like this:
There’s Uncle Jimmie!
What’s he doing there?
He’s an actor.
What’s an actor?
Boy, that’s a tough one to explain to a 3 year old. We had just spent a week with Saoirse, where Jimmie had read her “Where the Wild Things Are,” and had given her Uber rides around the rental house on his sporty walker. In fact, I recently came across a video from her 1st year where she was visiting and Jimmie was trying on some hats on her. She saw her reflection in the kitchen garbage can and smiled at the recognition of just how good she looked in that hat. Well, maybe it was gas, but it seemed more determined than that.
Sometimes it is a good reminder to be asked the most basic questions of what is special about the world we live in and our options for work in that world. I guess we should be grateful that her first exposure to Uncle Jimmie wasn’t in his role as Uncle Moodri, in the TV Series “Alien Nation.” There might have been a lot more questions at that point!
How does one begin to explain to a 3-year-old why a grown man would dress up and play a role that is as repulsive as Councilman Milton? I can only imagine the other questions voiced or unvoiced by Saoirse in that moment of recognition:
How does he get to be in the TV?
Why is he so mean?
Why doesn’t anyone like him?
How to answer these questions?
How long has he been doing this?
Are there other places we can see Uncle Jimmie?
But probably the most frightening question for a parent is the inevitable one:
How do I get to do that?
What does it take to become an actor?
Here I’ve provided a helpful link for those of you who are thinking about becoming an actor or who have children asking the questions. Careers – Actor
As someone who teaches a technical theatre class in a private university, a class which is predominantly populated by actors, I see hundreds of actors come through in a four year period, all of whom had that moment of questioning and discovery that Saoirse had yesterday. Now, she may not ask the (for some parents) scary questions that result in hearty attendance at our THTR 130 class, but she may, too. Is her Mom ready to answer them? I bet she is. Time will tell if Saoirse follows in Uncle Jimmie’s footsteps. We will try not to influence her too much in such an important decision.
It occurred to me this week after a few events out with my husband, a life-long actor of outstanding repute and with a CV for days, that because of my long life with him, I have had many interesting and life-enhancing experiences. I have lunched with television comedy writers on a wisteria-enclosed porch in Williamstown; I have dined in New York with the former co-star of the same TV show. There have been many special moments.
And I have provided a few of the same events for him, where work has immersed me into heady collaborations with some famous people, both those with very big egos, the VBEs and those who are not, but are just VFPs, very famous people. We can eschew chummy companionship with VBEs because they don’t need us anyway, and breathe a more rarified air than we do.
The problem is, that when one sees a VFP, you can’t know if he or she will be a VBE. I am shy about approaching celebrities to tell them how much I enjoyed their work on such and such. First because I don’t think they care, and lately, because those such and suches are harder to extrude from my brain in a way that makes a dignified approach plausible or timely.
The one exception was the night that I was standing on the corner of Hope and 9th St., waiting to cross from the park. I think it was the night of the SAG Awards. A black shiny SUV pulled up to the red light, and the passenger window was down. Tom Hanks was in the front seat; I knew from having stage managed a few events with him, that he was a really nice guy. I caught his eye and he smiled. I had just seen him do a reading of “Twelfth Night, Or What you Will” at the Geffen Playhouse, a fund-raiser for The Shakespeare Center, and so, I said to him, “I just saw you do that reading of Twelfth Night at the Geffen last week. You were wonderful.” He beamed, because it was a completely unexpected reference. His shiny SUV pulled away, leaving me satisfied with the encounter. But I digress.
As my husband has aged, he’s lost mobility from pain in his knees. Whether from the many thousands of miles he logged as a marathoner, or arthritis, his walking has become very labored and painful. He recently graduated from a cane to a walker, so we don’t worry about how long he will have to stand. It’s been a great improvement, if the need for such a contraption can be seen in positive terms at all.
Last Friday, we attended a screening of two films by Robert Downey, Sr. at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. Jimmie had called me earlier in the week to ask me to look into tickets for the screening of “Greaser’s Palace” and “Pound.” Jimmie has talked about “Pound” for years, and I knew that he played “The Honky Killer” in the film. I had previously looked online to see about renting or buying the film, and had never been able to find it on DVD, so I was as pleased as he about the screenings, and secured two tickets for that night.
We arrived at the theatre at about 6:00PM; the theatre doors were to open at 6:30 and the film started at 7:00PM. There were already a number of people lined up when we arrived. We got into the line, and Jimmie had a seat on his walker.
We were surrounded by young, very hip looking people. Two hipsters with cameras soon emerged from the theatre and interviewed two young men at the front of the line, who were now eating pizza. “How long have you been waiting in line to see this film?” They responded as they continued to munch their pizza on camera. I tried to look blasé, but really wanted to say, “PSSST… Hey, back here! This is James Greene, who plays ‘the Honky Killer’ in “Pound.” But I didn’t. Jimmie is roughly the same age as the filmmaker, Robert Downey, Sr.; it surprised me a bit that they didn’t have the least bit of curiosity about him.
Older people are invisible to young people. Something about achieving the age of 80 plus, or even 50 plus, suddenly negates all your achievements as an artist. Your audience diminishes as you age, and unless someone guides the younger audience to awareness of your work, so does your relevance. In addition to losing your mobility, you also lose your street cred, in spite of the fact that you are sharp mentally, and your skills haven’t diminished just because the vessel that holds them has. This is very frustrating and saddening.
In the past few years, I have become the legs in the family, not an entirely comfortable position for me. When we went into the theatre, it became clear because of the way the chairs in the aisles, that Jimmie’s walker was not going to be able to pass. I took his arm and guided him slowly to our seats in the back of the theatre. The theatre was extremely dim, with light at the front; a DJ spun a record with music from “Pound” for the audience. There were a few directors’ chairs set up for a brief interview with Robert Downey Jr. and Sr. before the movie.
A tall, well dressed and sophisticated looking man entered the front of the theatre from a space off to the house right side. Jimmie perked up and had it not been for his damned legs, he would have sprinted to the front of the theatre. “That’s Bob, I think,” he said to me. “I’d really like to see him tonight.” And just as he said that, the man turned and made his way up the house right aisle to the lobby. I sprung into action.
“I’ll let him know that you are here,” I said.
Jimmie beamed gratefully. I leapt to my feet, nervous, as I readied myself to accost the evening’s celebrity honoree. I found him in the lobby outside the men’s room, at the front of the line, ceded this place no doubt by the young acolytes who respectfully waited behind him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Downey?” I stood at his feet, tilting my head back to take in his 6’5” frame, and feeling very small indeed. I was smack dab in that moment of not knowing if I had approached a VBE.
He swiveled his gaze down at me, implacable, no smile on his face. I braved on.
“I’m married to Jimmie Greene, the honky killer in Pound?” I paused, feeling slightly nauseous as he continued to gaze down at me. Silence. I was starting to break a sweat.
“He’s here tonight, and would love to see you, but has some mobility issues that will prevent his coming to the front.”
And then, just the hint of a smile, and “James Greene. I would love to see him.”
“Great!” I said, scuttling away from him and the front of the men’s room line and hurrying back to our seats.
This is what I mean by wearing the legs in the family. Often, Jimmie has the fervent desire to see and talk with someone but not the mobility and it falls to me, to my legs and my screwed up courage, to leave behind my ego and approach someone whom I would never approach in a hundred years were it not for my husband.
We watched the panel of Bob Downey and several of his colleagues, director Paul Thomas Anderson, and actors Lawrence Wolf, Don Calfa and Pablo Ferro, who played The Indian in “Greaser’s Palace” talk about some funny stories related to the making of these two films.
Then we watched “Greaser’s Palace,” which starred among others, our dear recently-departed friend, Allan Arbus, as the Jesus figure. It is an amazing film, especially in the newly restored version, which was vibrant in it’s colors. Never having seen a Robert Downey film, I was pleasantly surprised at the soulful weirdness of the film.
Intermission came, and the entire audience (save us legless ones) moved to the reception area while we waited for the reason we had come. “Pound.”
I will cede this territory to Jimmie’s recall in a future guest post because it will be more relevant. But I will just say that after “Pound” ended, and we made our way up to speak to Robert Downey, after he and Jimmie had talked, Robert Downey looked at me and said “Thank you for making sure we got to talk tonight.” Which made it all worthwhile.
Other festivities this week took us to the wrap party for Parks and Recreation, at a nightclub in Hollywood called “The Colony.” Again, were it not for my husband, I would not be spending time in nightclubs.
We snagged a great table right near the door, so were able to see as people arrived for the party. Before long, some of the other councilmen from the show, Jon Glaser and Kevin Symons gravitated to our table and were happy to speak with Jimmie. I worked up my courage again and shot this photo of the three of them. After shooting it, Jon Glaser handed me his cell phone to shoot one for him.
See, normal people, people. Not VBEs. And I was there because I wear the legs in this family.