So I was buying a car last week. As many of you well know, it can be a bit of a grind. But there’s that swell of relief that comes once the terms have been agreed upon and the conversation with the salesperson is allowed to ease off the throttle. With all the who are you’s and what do you do’s exhausted—as well the ubiquitous credit check that pretty much disallows me from lying about my occupation—talk of showbiz was pretty much unavoidable. And because it’s Southern California, everybody has a Hollywood connection or a story.

While the piles of required paperwork were readied for signatures, the handsome sales dude leaned back and shared. And what do you know? Once upon a time, he’d been actor. Moved all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles to realize his dreams of you know what.

“Really?” I said, trying not to sound too mocking in my lack of surprise. As if I’d never heard that before. Let alone the tsunami of excuses as to why he ended up in a neatly pressed dress shirt and tie selling cars to make a living.

I wondered what rationale he was about to lay on me. Was it because showbiz is a who-you-know game and he never got the breaks? Or would it be the one about the agents or managers who just didn’t get him? Judging by his age and good looks, he might’ve achieved his dream if he hadn’t kept getting beat out for parts by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Daniel Day Lewis, and Brad Pitt.

Or maybe. Just maybe he was going to blame some girl he got pregnant and his ne’er-do-well career was flushed due to adult-onset parenthood.

“What happened?” I finally asked.

“I sucked,” the handsome salesman said flatly.

I let loose an uncontrolled, spontaneous belly laugh. Honest and wonderfully astonished.

“Know what? I haven’t heard that one,” I finally said.

“It’s true,” he smiled. “In Vancouver I was something.”

“You were big there?” I chimed.

“I was. Then I came down here and realized that I just wasn’t very good.”

As I write this, it’s a few days later and I’m still warmed by the man and his simple honesty. I mean, I can’t calculate the number of wannabes and never-beens I’ve encountered along my dubious career. And like I said, everybody has a story, most of which are sad excuses for having never touched that star they so desired. Over years and years, I can count on maybe two or three fingers how many times somebody has painted himself with such a starkly honest brush.

“I wanted to be a screenwriter,” a schoolteacher once told me. “But there’s this weird part of the job I eventually discovered. You actually had to know how to write.”

Then there was this old hardware biz pal who’d once dreamed of a career in production design.

“I have the talent. I know I do. Probably way more developed than most of the hacks I see working today,” said my hardware buddy. “But what they have that I don’t is the desire to do any job for anybody anywhere to get my foot in the door and keep it there until someone recognizes that I’m the guy. That’s a drive I don’t have. I realized that about me. And so good on them that do.”

Before tag lines were even known as tag lines, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry had himself some serious winners. My favorite being a bit of dialogue from Magnum Force, where right after Lt. Briggs (played masterfully by the great Hal Holbrook) is killed by a car bomb originally meant for Callahan. Eastwood delivers the line in a trademark whisper:

“Man’s got to know his limitations.”

Now please. I’m not suggesting we should all be so personally aware that we cap our ambition with a weight too heavy to lift. But there’s a significant stream of showbiz wannabes and near-comers who’d be a helluva lot happier, let alone sober, if they had a more accurate vision of themselves and the square millimeter of tiny real estate they occupy in the food chain.

Way back in the day when I was still a pup in the game, I had an actress girlfriend who’d just wound up half a season as a fourth-on-the-call-sheet regular on a just-cancelled TV series. Her role was neither memorable in dimension nor performance. Yet there I was at her side as she met with her manager for the first time since the network had formally killed the series.

“This is the best thing that could happen to us,” croaked her manager, who’d chain-smoked enough cigarettes to lower her register to someplace south of Tom Waits. “Now that you’re free of your TV commitment—and with your recent exposure—you’re gonna be competing for roles with Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep.”

I recall this as one of the biggest lines of bullshit I’d ever heard. Before the ligaments in my jaw had gone completely slack, I glanced left to check what was sure to be an equally gobsmacked expression on my girlfriend’s face. Instead, she was beaming and full-on basking in the glow of a spotlight she would never know. The career that lay ahead of her was real and scalable. Full of possibilities if she could ever supply herself with some realistic goals and the tools to attain them. Instead, she was sucking back her manager’s hokum like it was green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. The froggy old bat might as well had told my girlfriend that overnight she’d grown fairy wings. That all that was left for the doe-eyed actress to realize her dreams was to flap her feathers and fly.

I long ago lost touch with that girlfriend. I haven’t a glimmer where she landed or how softly. But I did recently meet this very chill car salesman with a perspective that I can wholly respect.

FREE! My suspense thriller THE SAFETY EXPERT is available for a free download here. Read it and throw me an honest review on Amazon.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • david kessler

    great post, Doug. After 15 years in LA, I’ve smacked up against my limitations and watched others as well (some falling from a great height)…

    • Doug Richardson

      Better you smack up against your limitations than while on live TV getting smacked up against your head by your embarrassed Baltimore mom. Thanks David.

  • I left Hollywood with my crate of unproduced screenplays and wrote a little mystery novel set in my home town. A genre piece, doomed to a small readership and a humble life on the literary outskirts. I sent it to a publisher that didn’t require an agent. They put it out, along with the second book in the series, and the third is on its way. Not exactly the vision of glory I started out with. But it’s not bad. And it turns out writing books is way more fun than writing movies. So my advice is –think small! These American dreams can kill you, if you sleep too long.

    • Doug Richardson

      Good comment, Steven. And even better, you’re writing for folks who want to be entertained. I’m with you all the way.

  • bruckey

    For an actor one would have thought Vancouver would be a good place what will all those tv movies etc. An actor is Vancouver or a salesman in LA ?

    • Doug Richardson

      The car salesman had left Vancouver well before Canada began to lure production away from Hollywood. Thus he stayed in Los Angeles where cars and customers to buy them were aplenty. Thanks Bruckey

  • clive

    I tried to sell my Hitler story there. Audience sympathy was a problem. I’d drawn him as someone who wrote a bestseller, made a fortune on the lecture circuit; built a huge tax debt, but then became chancellor and had it cancelled by law. So in my version he was a crook, but smart. It went a bit further, some stuff not many people know, a startling premise, and a grandstand ending that you don’t expect and solves the problem of cheering on a guy who killed so many people and did such a lot of bad things.

    I was offered four million just for the treatment alone.The only stipulation was that I had to conjure a love interest and my name wouldn’t be on the credits. Of course I told him take a run and jump my integrity being far more valuable than mere money. He wrote the cheque and kept waving it in front of me- all those zeros.He said he’d produce another film, with my name on it, any subject and any budget, but he wanted that big H story. My writers integrity wouldn’t let me do it and I ripped his phone number up with some disdain. So here I am un-produced. We’ve all been there.

    Of course I googled him once I got back to the UK so I could call him up and tell him I’d changed my mind about the money but it turns out Mr Speelbudd actually runs a chain of coffee shops and isn’t a film producer after all.But I wasn’t to know that was I ? Does this count?

    • Doug Richardson

      They all count, Clive.

      • clive

        Premise;

        The Presidents letter.

        In 1939 Albert Einstein sent American President Theodore Roosevelt a letter warning about advances in nuclear physics. A bomb of immense power now seemed possible, and a hostile nation -Germany- wera seeming favourites in a race to get there first. The result of this letter was the Manhattan project America’s colossal financial and scientific effort to win this race. The eventual result was the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 that led directly to the Japanese surrender and the end of world war 11

        It was a period of brilliant experimentation, theoretical genus, and frenetic spying.

        Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter too, but this letter unlike the Einstein letter was a secret.One of the scientists conjectured that through the mathematics that now became necessary was thrown up the possibility of time travel. An experiment was proposed,whereby a small black box containing President Roosevelt’s letter addressed to an unknown future president should be sent froward one hundred years hence.This black box, if the experiment worked, would come back with a reply. The letter asked for advances such as medical and technological breakthroughs to be sent back on humanitarian grounds -one president to another-.

        The experiment failed.

        • Doug Richardson

          And you’re pitching on my comments page?