Stanley Kramer’s film The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T was based on a story by Dr. Seuss. In the film, a high camera shot looks down on a giant grand piano, the object of a little boy’s fear and dread of piano lessons. For years as a child, whenever I had a fever, I had a nightmare in which I was free-falling, spiraling down, down, down in slow motion toward that evil black piano. This dream haunted me until I was fifteen. Dr. Seuss had damaged me for life.
WHEN MY GRANDFATHER DIED, HE LEFT MY mother an apartment in Laguna Beach, and my family summered down there at some point most every year throughout my childhood. One summer, we invited my friend Stephanie from the Teenage Drama Workshop to join me, Mom, Dad, and my stepsister, Gail. The girls were dating a pair of brothers, both of whom were bona fide Newport Beach cool guys, both of whom I worshipped the same way in which I looked up to the older actors in the Workshop.
As was often the case when I was in my early teens, Gail had to drag me around whenever my parents went off to do their own thing. Fortunately, she and Stephanie liked having me around as a third wheel, especially when they were bored. They would amuse themselves by doing things like dyeing my hair platinum blond. I was actually okay with that, because even though I didn’t surf at the time, I wanted to look like all the older surfer guys. I begged their boyfriends to teach me; since I was hanging around anyway, they reluctantly agreed to give me surfing lessons. I’d always been a good swimmer, so it was relatively easy for me to become a decent surfer. I kept working at it and kept improving, eventually evolving into a solid California surfer, somebody who’d earned his place in the lineup.
Surfing is one of those rare sports that’s noncompetitive; it’s you against yourself, you against the ocean. It’s about balance and timing and knowing how to manipulate a floating object that glides across the face of a wave, a liquid wall that’s collapsing across the surface of the sea. The ultimate free ride. Exhilarating. Kind of like acting.
My entry into surf culture couldn’t have been timed better. During early high school, the most popular people were the football players and the cheerleaders, but by the time I was ready to go to college in 1965, the cool kids were the Beatles wannabes and us surfers. Times had changed, but I’d already done my changing, so socially speaking, I was in pretty good shape.
The surfing in California was good, but not always consistent. My crew liked to explore, so now and then we would sneak off down to Baja, Mexico to find better waves. None of our parents had any idea that we were outside of the country— I’m not sure what kind of excuses my friends came up with, but I’d generally tell my parents that we were camping up north of Malibu—and, God, if we’d been arrested south of the border, they would’ve had no clue where to look for us. With the omnipresent banditos, the bald tires on our ’56 pickup, and the fact that often the person who drove was underage or inebriated, it’s a wonder we didn’t end up dead or in a Mexican jail.
My surfing buddies and I tended to get wrecked on beer, sake, shitty wine, and Mexican peach brandy. That’s pretty much all we drank; we were so afraid of getting Montezuma’s revenge that we refused to touch the water, choosing instead to throw down jug wine and all kinds of fruity alcohol. Of course, it being the midsixties, drugs were always around, but at first they didn’t infiltrate our little group. The first time my surf crew smoked weed was during Easter break on one of our Mexican camping trips; we all huddled under a huge blanket so when we exhaled, we wouldn’t lose any of the precious smoke. We were total weenies. Timothy Leary would’ve been embarrassed for us.
Then, right before high school graduation, much to everybody’s surprise (mine included), I ran away from home. Walkedout. Just left. I got into an epic argument with my father.Part of it was inane—I believed that he’d reneged on his promise to pay my car insurance if I got good grades, and he believed it was my responsibility to pay my own damn car insurance—and part of it was deadly serious: he was pissed that I’d chosen to pursue acting rather than attend a good university and go to law school. Armed with the kind of righteous indignation that only an eighteen-year-old actor can muster, I threw my car keys at my father and stormed out of the house. It would be a while before I saw my parents again.
MY PLAN WAS TO go to college at California State University at Northridge. The college had an excellent drama school and a state-of-the-art stage tech department, plus, some of the old directors from the Teenage Drama Workshop were on the faculty. I was familiar with the campus, so I knew the transition would be fun and relatively easy. In the end, though, my decision to attend Cal State over the more prestigious UCLA came down to two basic facts: one, I could afford it; and two, UCLA didn’t allow freshmen on the stage, and I wasn’t about to sit out a year.
That summer, I moved into the basement of an old Hollywood building where some of my drama department classmates and I were planning to start a summer theater. (The space, in Los Feliz, used to house an old beatnik poetry coffeehouse, and it must have been the most revered beatnik coffeehouse in the history of coffeehouses, as demonstrated by the map on the ceiling that featured the addresses and phone numbers of a network of beatnik coffeehouses across the country. What better place for a bunch of artistic types to convert into a temple of theater?) The other actors, many of whom had had similar battles with their own families, had no problem letting Rob Englund, the runaway, crash in the basement.
My best friend was an actor named Hugh Corcoran, and Hugh’s family was minor Hollywood royalty. His sister Noreen was the costar of a hugely popular 1950s TV series called Bachelor Father, and his brother Kevin—who eventually became a producer on The Shield—had starred in Old Yeller, Swiss Family Robinson, and Pollyanna … not to mention that he was Moochie on the old Mickey Mouse Club. I was familiar with all their work and couldn’t help but be quietly thrilled when they made me part of their family. Something was always simmering on the stove at the Corcorans’, generally an enormous pot of Irish stew, and fascinating people were always coming and going in and out of the house, and they all treated me like an equal; I don’t know if it was because Hugh told everybody that I had some talent, or if they were just being nice. But their motivations didn’t matter to me—I was just happy to be there, chowing down, listening to stories about auditions, learning about the joys of cashing residual checks, overhearing gossip about Hollywood greats, and being invited to the sets of their respective television shows. That these accomplished people treated me as though I belonged gave me another layer of self-confidence that I took to the stage. As was the case after Steve Allen gave me that first taste of professional encouragement, I felt included.
Hugh and I became the managers of our little theater, which we dubbed Théâtre Intime, French for “intimate theater.” That may sound pretentious, but it was more about marketing than anything else; that name was our way of putting a positive spin on our having only forty-six seats. We produced two summers of innovative theater and got rave reviews in the L.A. Times, Variety, and Hollywood Reporter—no small accomplishment because, at that time, there were just as many plays for journalists to review as there are today, with only a fraction of the media outlets. The highlights of our repertoire were our West Coast premieres of Arthur Miller’s play about Marilyn Monroe, After the Fall, and Megan Terry’s controversial antiwar piece, Viet Rock. Considering our tender ages, what we accomplished was incredible.
At the end of the summer, my father somehow tracked me down at the theater, and, rather than read me the riot act or threaten to disown me, he acted as if nothing had happened. He said he was glad to see me, gave me some money, and took me out for a steak, which was a welcome treat, as I’d survived the past year on coffee and French fries. I think he was impressed that I’d stuck to my guns. Once he realized how seriously I took my acting, he was proud, and that negated any residual anger or resentment … on both of our parts.
WHEN SCHOOL STARTED, I had little trouble assimilating. It didn’t matter whether I was a surfer, a baseball player, a fighter pilot, or a drug dealer; when you go off to college, everybody starts at zero. You could be who you wanted to be. I wanted to be an actor. Fortunately, at that time, being an acting major at Cal State was just about the coolest thing you could be.
I knew right off the bat, just before my general audition for the drama department, that the acting scene in college was definitely going to be challenging. The young man who auditioned before me didn’t look that intimidating—he was short and not anywhere near what you would call movie-star hand-some—but the guy had talent. He strutted up onstage, stood confidently in front of the entire faculty, delivered a monologue from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, and with seemingly no effort just fucking nailed it. This kid was passionate, he had presence, and he was original; I don’t know if he could’ve handled the lead in Pinocchio or pulled off playing a randy pigeon, but this young man, this Richard Dreyfuss, was an Actor. With a capital A.
As I watched him knock one of my favorite monologues out of the park, I realized that if I was going to make any kind of mark in school—hell, if I was even going to survive—I had to step it up. The bar had been raised. As it happened, Richard wasn’t long for Cal State, and he knew it. The day after my audition, he sidled over to me in the hall and whispered, “I’ve gotta get out of this place, and you should too.” He dropped out soon thereafter and, within a few weeks, was doing improv comedy with Rob Reiner and, a few months after that, started popping up in TV shows such as Bewitched, Gidget, and That Girl. (Who knows—maybe I should’ve followed him to the Promised Land.)
One of my acting teachers during college was Jeff Corey. Jeff, who’d been blacklisted in the 1950s during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, was the real deal and counted Jack Nicholson among his students. When I studied under him, Corey’s career was on the upswing, and over the next few years he appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Between his film and television roles, he ran a challenging, unique master class in acting. I may have been a bit intellectually behind my other Corey classmates, but once I settled in and began to understand his language and philosophy, I was okay. He gave us a bunch of improv-oriented exercises that seemed to me to be well ahead of their time; for instance, he’d have two of us sit across the table from one another and hold off on our dialogue. We were supposed to just look at each other until some uncomfortable something—a funny blink of an eye or a suppressed burp—compelled one of us to begin the scene. On paper, that might not sound so exciting, but believe me, it gave us the skills to act more organically and observe and listen during a scene. But the truth is, much of what he taught me then didn’t make practical sense until years later.
Another gentleman whose teachings confused me a bit while I was still in college was Lee Strasberg. One of the greatest gurus in acting history, Lee used to preach relaxation, relaxation, relaxation. He was all about “eliminating tension,” and I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about until I was twenty-nine. The director had just called, “Action,” during a particularly big scene in one of my first TV series when, without even thinking about it, I neglected to press my internal energy button and fell into a state of relaxation that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced either onstage or in front of the camera. I’d clicked into a mode that superseded my normal impulse to go a hundred miles an hour. I didn’t have to work at manufacturing inner energy. I realized I could play a role excited even when I was feeling calm, and it gave me much more control over myself and the material. That was only a small tenet of Strasberg’s method, and it’s little surprise that the actors who studied with him for significant amounts of time—James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and Jane Fonda, among many others—turned out to be among the best of their respective generations.
Lee’s classes were held in a movie theater in Westwood, and I studied alongside Shelley Winters and Lesley Ann Warren, as well as a number of other actors, writers, and directors who went on to have successful careers in Hollywood—and I was more than a little starstruck. I realized early on that a lot of what Lee was teaching only applied to working actors; novices such as me wouldn’t get nearly as much out of the Strasberg Method as the pros. All the business about “sense memory” and “affective memory” and “protecting your character’s agenda” didn’t make sense to me at the time. But when it clicked in … well, suffice it to say that without Lee Strasberg—not to mention Jeff Corey and James Rawley—audiences wouldn’t have believed in Freddy Krueger.
All of a sudden, school was in full swing, and things started getting serious. I’d initially gotten into acting for the girls and the adrenaline high—I didn’t have an aesthetic agenda. But now, instead of splitting time between the surfers and the artists, I hung out almost exclusively with my fellow actors and ate, drank, and slept the theater. This wasn’t considered mainstream behavior at that time. Good kids from good families weren’t supposed to wear all black and yammer on about Pinter; we were fast-tracked to be doctors or engineers or businessmen, or—in the case of people with the gift of gab such as myself—lawyers. A nine-to-five job was respected. A hand-to-mouth job wasn’t.
All this time with the drama crew was fine and good, but it wasn’t doing a damn thing for my grade-point average, which was going down the toilet, primarily because we didn’t get credit units for any of our stage appearances. I was barely attending any nondrama classes anyway, and zero plus zero equals zero. It looked as if I wasn’t destined to get a diploma. So not only was I not going to be a lawyer, I wasn’t even going to earn a college degree. My parents were less than impressed.
Near the end of that semester, I reconnected with my old high school sweetheart, Betsy, who was working at Cal State. The timing was right and we fell in love again. I was mature enough to appreciate true love, so I asked her to marry me. She said yes. I was twenty-one, close to being kicked out of school, and I was about to take my bride.
* * *
THAT SPRING, ONE OF my friends went to England to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the most prestigious training grounds for actors in the entire world. When he came back, he told me the RADA faculty was holding auditions at Mills College, a small school up in Oakland. Now between the Teenage Drama Workshop, high school, Théâtre Intime, and Cal State, I’d performed in almost fifty plays and I had a number of solid audition pieces ready to go, so I figured I’d give it a try. Four of my actor friends also wanted to give RADA a shot, so, fueled on coffee and uppers, we piled into our hippie-mobile and hauled ass up to the Bay Area.
About halfway there, we stopped at a kitschy, Catskills-like honeymoon motel called the Madonna Inn to use the toilet and grab some food, because we realized it was foolish to rely entirely on stimulants to get us up to Oakland and through our auditions. The highlight of my Madonna Inn experience was the bathroom, where, after pissing about six gallons of coffee, I experienced my first automatic electronic-eye flush toilet. After I played with the urinal for a while, I zipped up, and it dawned on me that the bathroom had some of the best acoustics I’d ever heard, so I told my friends they needed to get in there and start running their lines because they’d never sound better. After about thirty minutes of practicing in the john, we piled back into the car and kept heading north.
We finally made it to Mills College and immediately realized that this was just about the worst place we could possibly audition because the distractions were myriad. Turned out that Mills was an all-girls school. While I was trying to brush up on my Shakespeare, every hot coed in northern California was either sunbathing on the campus lawn or walking around in black tights and no bra. Between the speed, and the girls, and the long drive, I was a mess.
The old theater where the auditions were held had great acoustics, almost as good as the crapper at the Madonna Inn. My friends and I paced up and down the creaky aisles, warmed up our voices, practiced our lines, and did our best to calm our nerves.
Then it was time to do my thing.
What felt like the entire RADA faculty sat in the front row, wearing their turtlenecks and tweedy jackets, looking oh-so- English. Feeling equally European in my head-to-toe corduroy outfit and work boots, I presented myself as professionally as possible, offered up my name, introduced my audition pieces, and went to work. The rest is a blank. I know I rushed my lines a bit—no surprise, considering all the caffeine coursing through my bloodstream—and I recall getting a single laugh, but that’s it. After I finished, one of the faculty members told me that he liked my energy. (Thank you, pills and coffee.) I waited while my friends read their monologues, then we all headed back south.
The letters showed up a few weeks later. That year, out of nearly nine hundred who auditioned, only fifteen were invited to train at RADA. Three of that fifteen were from my little group. So just like that, it was off to London. Or so we thought.
Several months prior, RADA had apparently become embroiled in a huge controversy about teaching methodology. Long story short, the old schoolers didn’t like the touchy-feely avant-garde direction the new schoolers were headed in, and the new schoolers wanted the old schoolers to get hip. The traditionalists got fed up with the whole thing, left RADA, and headed to the United States, in search of a university in a community with an arts budget that could support a professional acting-training school. What better location than the American Midwest—Rochester, Michigan, home of Oakland University?
So much for swinging London.