The road to Hollywood is strewn with has-beens and “woulda-coulda” beens. The joke is that if you want to find an actor, just hold out a sandwich on Hollywood Blvd and it’s the first 20 who take a bite. The joke might be stale, but the facts behind it still hold true. It’s just within the last few decades you could add screenwriters, producers and directors to the mix, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. For every successful actor (and by successful, I just mean, making a decent wage in that craft) there are, easily, a thousand who are struggling to make ends meet, or are doing something else to pay the bills. The difference today, as opposed to the struggles an actor had to face trying to make it in “showbiz” in the 20th century, is the plethora of options out there for anyone with drive and ambition, to not just “get work” but be a recognizable “personality.”
My dad, Mark Sheeler, in the 1950s and 60s, had the drive. He came to LA by way of New York, San Francisco, and a bunch of small burghs across the country as a radio DJ. In between, he drove cabs, worked in mailrooms, print shops and movie theaters. Most successfully, he was a photographer, and once he and my mother had their first child (my older sister) he did the “honorable thing” (his term) by giving up on acting and pursuing a career that seemed to yield the highest returns; that of a photographer. He later got work with the LA Dept. of Water & Power as head of the Reprographics Department, and that’s where he stayed until he retired at 65. And while he was there, he still worked weekends as a wedding and Bar Mitzvah photographer, and myself or my sister would be “impressed” along as the “assistant,” which usually meant we held a battery pack and second flash to give his shots a more “dimensional” look.
All our lives, we would be regaled, ad infinitum, by my father’s many stories about his time as an actor. He listed names that were completely foreign to us as kids, and even today are considered mostly at the very furthest edges of Hollywood. A lot of these “actors” had “Jr.” tagged onto their name. He worked with Alan Ladd, Jr., Edward G. Robinson Jr., and Frank Sinatra Jr. Other names have become a little more familiar to me today. According to him, Dan Duryea was a nice guy, but a lush. Broderick Crawford, by the time my dad did a bit part with him on the series Highway Patrol, was also a lush, and (According to him) had to have some of his scenes shot, propped up against a file cabinet so he wouldn’t fall down.
During the 50s and very early 60s, my father appeared in many a television show: from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Superman, to Disney’s Zorro. His ethnic looks assured him bits and walk ons as everything from a Mexican “bandito,” to Russians, Arabs, Asians and of course, Jews. He was also in a myriad of shows that are largely unknown today: The New Adventures of China Smith, Captain Z-Ro and Sergent Preston of the Yukon. From the time I was born all the way to the present, he would start a story I’d heard umpteen times with, “Did I ever tell you the time Danny Kaye walked out on me? He was a schmuck.” Or, “Nat King Cole was a very nice man. Did I ever tell you how he recorded “The Christmas Song” in the middle of July?”
He did additional dialogue work on Elmer Gantry (“Richard Brooks would always tell me he was going to hire me after I looped some crowd voices for him. A big talker.”); was an extra “running in the crowd” in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (“They told everybody to look up and scream, but no one told us where to look”); and a fireman in one of the last films intended for Abbott & Costello (Fireman, Save My Child) but instead ended up as a sad knock-off with Buddy Hackett.
There’s no question my father paid his dues. Around 1956, he was working in the mailroom of William Morris when a buddy of his, also sorting letters, told him he was raising his own funds to produce a script he wrote. He promised my dad that he had a part in it for him. At the time, my dad was seriously considering getting out of “the business,” but this young wanna-be producer seemed very serious. Within a few months, this producer-cum-huckster Dick Bernstein made good on his promise and cameras starting rolling on a low-low-low budget horror flick called From Hell It Came. My dad got the part of Eddie, a sergeant stationed on a small South Seas atoll, where an ancient curse has possessed a tree stump and turned it into a shuffling monster called the Tabonga. It’s not a big part, he functions primarily as the guy who reports what’s going on to the leads, and generally runs in and out of rooms, picking up or putting down his rifle. His best moment from the film is when he and a group of scientists discover the communications room has been vandalized by the tree monster, and he shouts “Holy Mackerel!” (He claims to have ad-libbed the line, and based on the fact that he would shout this whenever he was surprised, seems believable to me).
Of all his work, From Hell It Came is his lasting legacy. It’s shown up on several worst films lists, received a Golden Turkey Award, and was even featured in the clip film, It Came from Hollywood. It’s bad in an Ed Wood kind of way, although the director and producer knew they were making a piece of schlock, and unlike Wood, had no aspirations for art or greatness. With such a limited budget, most of the characters stand (or sit) around the cheap, thin walled sets, discussing, philiosophizing and drinking in between paragraphs of horribly over-written, stilted dialogue. The budget was so low, the monster, the Tabonga, was one of the apple-throwing trees from The Wizard of Oz, discovered in a pile at Western Costuming by the producer, which of course, inspired his entire idea for the movie.
My dad’s connection with Bernstein, assured him small parts in all the quickies he churned out. After From Hell It Came, he played an army Captain in a painfully slapdash “war movie” called Tank Battalion (1958) that starred Frank Gorshin in an attempt to play more serious roles. That was followed up by Speed Crazy (1959) , one of the many Z-grade movies attempting to cash in on the juvenile delinquency crime dramas of the period. After that came (my favorite title of them all ) Why Must I Die? (1960), which seems, more accurately, the question asked by my father, since he plays a liquor store owner who is “plugged” in the first five minutes.
Just about then, in 1961, my sister was born, and my father hung up his clown shoes. You can wonder why, with all the work my dad did, he didn’t get more work, or could make a decent living? His best friend, character actor Ralph Manza, was in great demand. My dad always compared himself to Manza and Vito Scotti (two names that, if you don’t recognize, you will surely know their faces, as they made a very good living as cab drivers, sidekicks and various ethnicities in everything from Dragnet to Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, all the way through Night Court and Friends) and believed they got so much work because they were “kiss asses”– and my dad never stooped to that level.
The honest truth is my dad was not very good. As kids, we struggled with this idea; that if dad says he was good, than he must’ve been good. But deep down, we always felt he was a bit of a ham. Watching his work as an adult, there’s no question, he was sub-par, in an industry that is glutted with all types of talent. If you aren’t good, you better have a schtick, or a look, in order to stay in demand. Ralph Manza and Vito Scotti had faces (no question) and according to my dad, Manza had salami, which he would give as a gift to every one on the crew on the final day of shooting.
Since those days, and throughout his career as a photographer, my dad would appear in local theatre productions, and live vicariously through my siblings and my limited dabbling across the boards. But he was waiting. His thirst for the spotlight was not yet satiated, and once he retired, he went back out and carved a name for himself as an extra– he had a “Pirate” walk-on, on the sitcom Mad About You, and my favorite, he was a corpse on ER. (“That Anthony Edwards is a real professional, but that George Clooney was a schmuck. Never came over to say hello”.)
His greatest thrill, and the part he will never stop talking about, was as one of several “bankers” in the (now defunct) Washington Mutual commercials. He and several old men who look like the millionaire character from Monopoly, would be corralled behind velvet ropes and behave as callous and clueless as you would expect big, fat “Richie-Riches” could be. It’s been almost 10 years, and he still tells stories of the difficulty of dealing with the other “bankers,” (“Some of them would push to the front, but the director liked me, so he made sure I had a spot in the center,”) to the charms of the director (“He would always tell me, Mark, you’re a true professional.”)
I don’t know if, at the age of 91, my father ever figured it out he wasn’t very good, but I don’t think that’s the point. For me, the lesson learned is that he followed his dream; he struggled all his life to be the “banker at the front.” The true mark of success for him was not whether an actor was good, but if he was respected by his peers and awarded, in his opinion, the highest honor, being called a “professional.”
Because my dad stuck with it (yes, he did give it up for 30 years) even with his limited skill, he still succeeded. (He arguably made more money doing extra work on 80s sitcoms and commercials than he ever did during the early days when the rent money depended on it). And today, even though there are so many more people hoping to become “famous,” there are an abundance of outlets (Cable, Direct-to-video, Internet, Reality TV) so wide and varied, that talent has nothing to do with one’s chances of making a living on camera.
But if you want some sage advice and you really want to scale the wall faster, do what my father didn’t do. Always come to the set with salami.
Check out the Trailer for From Hell It Came – Mark Sheeler in the last 30 seconds firing at the Tabonga!