Having appeared in over seventy films, Kevin Pollak knows Hollywood. In “How I Slept My Way to the Middle,” the actor, writer and stand-up comedian recounts his experience amidst the movers, shakers and titans of show business. Here's an excerpt.
Howard Hughes and Logorrhea
It’s a warm, sunny Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles, smack-dab in the midsummer of 1994. I’m sitting in my trailer, waiting to continue work on a little heist film called The Usual Suspects. (Yes, thank you. Please be seated, really.) My then-exciting clamshell cell phone announces a call from my agent, who quickly moves past the niceties with The News: “There’s an offer from Martin Scorsese.”
“Holy *%$#!”, really? I guess I can die a happy man now.”
“Well,” he says, “you may want to do the movie first.”
“You’re probably right. Tell me more.”
“It’s called Casino. Nick Pileggi, the guy who wrote Goodfellas, wrote it—”
“Holy *%$#!” I shout.
“Couldn’t agree more. And it takes place in Vegas—”
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“Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are playing the leads.”
“HOLY *%$#!”,” I shout, even louder, scaring the *%$#! out of my Suspects costar Gabriel Byrne, holed up in his trailer all the way down the street.
My agent says he’s already messengered the script to the set, then adds, “It’s mesmerizing.” No surprise there. Any film fan worth a damn knows that Nick Pileggi is a genius of gangsterism. Also, let’s be honest: It only half matters what’s on the pages of that script when Mr. Scorsese is at the helm because there’s no way any reader will ever be able to see the divine magic he sees. If a screen direction reads, “Exterior: A chicken crosses the road,” you and I see a chicken crossing a road in anticipation of a joke or a fast-moving truck. Scorsese sees a breathtaking cinematic journey of the Mafia’s bloody takeover of every KFC franchise from Bayonne to Schenectady.
I tell my wonderful agent, George, that I don’t need to read the script. “I’m in.”
He pauses, which instantly registers on my “uh-oh” indicator. Then he says, “Like I said, it’s a definite offer . . .”
“You’re not going to say ‘but,’ are you?” I grumble.
“No, it’s an offer. Period. It’s just . . . well, it’s a long-standing tradition between Scorsese and De Niro that, if you’re going to play an important role in one of their films, you have to go meet them individually. They each like to say hello.”
“That tells me that, if the meetings don’t go well, the offer is rescinded.”
“No, it’s a formality. But it’s also an important tradition they have.”
“George, there’s only one reason to have a sit-down like this, let alone two of them, and you know this ‘offer’ is only good as long as I get through this important ritual.”
We both know that I’ve always been happy to meet with anybody to get a role, and if it means a chance to work with the great Scorsese, I’d sleep with whomever His Geniusness would like me to. The part that I was being “offered” was of Phillip Green, the mob’s extremely well-tailored, overly manicured, über–clean-cut front man, who on paper would be in charge of a new $60 million (1970s millions) casino in Vegas called The Tangiers.
The sudden nausea I’m feeling stems from the unfortunate timing of their requests for a sit-down. As George runs down the details of the aforementioned ritual meetings, I stare at the mirror before me and, man, I am not Phillip Green material.
My part in The Usual Suspects demands that I look like a sociopathic thief, killer, and weapons expert—albeit a lovable and quick-witted sociopath, to be fair. The version of me in the mirror during this magical Scorsese-offer life moment looks disheveled and more than a little nuts. My hair—then full and curly, unlike now—is as unkempt as it has ever been. A healthy goatee surrounded by a serious ten o’clock shadow covers my face. This won’t jibe with the look for my theoretical Casino character: slick, clean-shaven, and not at all nuts.
But, as George explains, I have no choice. I’ve been cleared from work, and the following day I’m scheduled to meet with Academy Award–winner Robert De Niro in a lavish bungalow at the absurdly luxurious Bel-Air Hotel.
The next morning, as I’m getting ready to head over, I decide to bring along an 8x10 headshot to demonstrate that I clean up nice. My plan is to knock on De Niro’s door, and then when he opens up, I’ll hold the photo over my face so he can see the real me and understand that, despite my current state of shagginess, I can look the part. Plus, I think, the gag might even make him smile, which won’t be the worst way to begin this all-important, wildly-nerve-wracking-for-one-of-us ritualistic sit.
I arrive at the Bel-Air, where for a mere $27 you too can have your car parked by a handsome young yet-to-be-cast movie star of tomorrow. Ellen Lewis, Scorsese’s wonderfully sweet casting director, takes me inside to the expansive lobby, where I’m seated with another Casino-“offered” actor waiting to meet De Niro. This particular actor proceeds to cut into my unsightly facial hair with the precision of a Jedi knight. But this isn’t just any actor—it’s Don Rickles, whose razor-sharp barbs send me into much-needed hysterics.
Ellen leaves us to check on the great Bobby D., which affords Rickles a moment to fawn quietly over my acting in Barry Levinson’s Avalon and Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. I thank him and insist, sincerely, that when I saw his dramatic turn in Kelly’s Heroes it was the first moment I believed it possible that one day I could get a shot at such a lofty opportunity.
He thanks me, then describes how excited he is to rip into De Niro, sending me into another laughing fit.
“Aren’t you even a little nervous to meet him today?” I ask.
“Kid, De Niro loves me.”
“Everyone loves you, Don.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, but listen: I just found out that when De Niro was a kid growing up in New York, there were two types of groups hanging out on the street corners. There were the doo-wop groups, who stood in a circle and sang songs, and there were the put-down groups, who stood in a circle and said, ‘Your mother this, and your mother that.’ Believe it or not, De Niro—shy, demure De Niro—was in a put-down group! Anyway, I find out that all those kids in De Niro’s group grew up thinking I was some kind of god. No kidding. I’m gonna rip him a new one big enough to park a Cadillac in.”
Spoiler alert #1: He did—and it was beyond anything you could imagine. Much more about this later.
Ellen rejoins us. “Kevin, it’s time.”
She might as well have said, “Kevin, what would you like as your last meal?” because it felt like I was heading to the chair.
As she walks me to De Niro’s tucked-away bungalow, she says, “Bobby’s harmless. There’s nothing to worry about.”
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Who says, “There’s nothing to worry about” when there’s actually nothing to worry about?
Suddenly it hits me: All I have to do to survive this meeting is to say as little as possible. He just wants to make sure I’m not a kiss-ass or an a__hole. I’ll be neither! I’ll be respectful and speak only when spoken to. I remember some advice that my Aunt Shirley Zucker bestowed upon me when I was a preteen: “Sometimes you shouldn’t try so hard to entertain. Sometimes you should dummy up.”
Dummy up . . . dummy up . . . dummy up, I tell myself as Ellen knocks on HIS door, pats my arm, and strolls away.
I look at the headshot in my hand and wonder if I should abandon this now-certainly-stupid sight-gag prop, but before I can decide whether to use it the door opens, and standing in the threshold I don’t see the Robert De Niro you and I know. Hell, I don’t see Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta or Al Capone or Max Cady or even a young Vito Corleone.
I see Howard Hughes.
And not the young, dashing Howard Hughes. We’re talking the last-six-months-of-his-life Howard Hughes: long gray hair, straggly gray beard, well-worn black bathrobe, mismatched pajamas. The only things missing are the five-inch fingernails and Kleenex boxes on his feet.
I’m instantly freaked out, and before you can say “What were you thinking, Kevin?” I throw the 8x10 of my stupid face into the bushes in front of De Niro’s $5,000-a-night Bel-Air bungalow. An easy decision really, given what was standing before me. I mean, for me to hold up a professional portrait, then point to my shaggy face and say, “I don’t normally look this way” in front of deathbed Howard Hughes is the very definition of absurd.
“Come on in,” he says, then heads back inside the massive suite. Even though it’s mid-morning, the curtains are drawn—and these are heavy curtains, mind you, hotel-grade blackout curtains. If it wasn’t for the lone reading lamp illuminating a huge, aged-leather easy chair, I wouldn’t have been able to see a thing.
He gestures at a sofa-like chair on one side of the room, then plops down in his and asks me, “Can I get you anything?”
I sit down. “No, thank you. I’m fine.”
He looks around the dark room with that squished up, squinted De Niro half smile–half frown face of his. “So, how ya doin’?”
“Great. Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks. Thank you.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Great.” Pause. “So.” Pause. “I just wanted to say hello.” Pause. “Wanted to meet you, ya know.”
“Sure I can’t get you anything?”
“Very kind of you,” I say, “but I honestly can’t think of anything.”
“Ok, sure.” Pause. “Terrific.” Pause. “Hmm.” Pause. “Just . . .” Pause. “Wanted to meet you.”
“Ya doin’ all right?”
“Oh, yes,” I say. “Thank you, yes.”
We go through that painful routine three more times, and in between each exchange there’s a full minute of silence, during which time he continues to look around the dark room. The whole time, I’m thinking, Do not say a thing, Pollak. The only way for you to blow this is to speak. Just keep your mouth shut. Not speaking was proving to be a problem, though, as De Niro wasn’t saying a whole hell of a lot either, and when you have a conversation, somebody should talk. But I would be damned if somehow I was going to end up saying the wrong thing. If he thought me odd because of my respectful silence and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity evaporated due to my zipped lip, then so be it.
Several interminable minutes of awkward silence later—-interspersed with him asking if I wanted anything—he reiterates, “I just wanted to meet you, and say hello, and, and, and, meet you. You met with Marty yet?”
“No, I’m meeting him tomorrow.”
“Great. Sure I can’t get you anything?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Then it dawns on me that my own lack of sparkling conversation might be contributing to the discomfort, so I try to come up with something clever to say . . .
“This is a lovely bungalow”?
“Is this ridiculous look of yours for a movie?”?
“I brought an 8x10 to explain why I look the way I do, but you, on the other hand, look like the Elephant Man for reasons I am not able to discern.”?
I can’t come up with anything, so I keep quiet.
Eventually he asks me if I want anything, and I’m this close to saying, “You know what, Bob?—and I understand that you like to be called Bob, but I’ll never call you Bob because I’ll never be comfortable with you—I’d like a salad from room service, but I’m not going to ask you to order me one because it would mean another forty-five minutes of this torturous, hellish meeting.” But wisely I keep my lip zipped.
Finally, finally, finally, the moment I’ve been praying for arrives: He stands up. As I rise in deference, he says: “I just wanted to meet you and say hello.” It took all of my strength to keep from saying, “Let me get this straight: You just wanted to meet me and say hello. Is that right?”
After another pause, he adds, “I look forward to working with you.”
“It will be an honor, sir,” I say as he ushers me to the door.
You moron! I think in the hallway. Why did you say, “It will be an honor”? Why did you call him “sir”? You came off like a little sycophant. You blew it! With all of that running through my overtaxed brain, I almost crash into Ellen Lewis.
“How’d it go?” she smiles.
She nods. “That’s exactly how it goes for everybody.”
“How do you know?”
“Let me tell you what happened,” she says. “You sat down, then he said, ‘Can I get you anything?’, then you said, ‘No, thank you,’ then he said, ‘I just wanted to meet you and say hello,’ then you went through that routine three, maybe four more times.”
“Actually it was seven.”
She nods, then calls to Rickles, “OK, Don. Go on in.”
Rickles wanders over, thanks Ellen, and asks me, “How’d it go, kid?”
I give him my most sincere smile and say, “Don, I’ve never had so much fun talking to somebody in my entire life. Nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Wouldn’t shut up. Zero inner monologue.”
“Nice try, kid. Ellen already told me the deal. See you in Vegas.”
Two days later, I am granted an audience with the masterful auteur Martin Scorsese. We meet in his trailer on the set of something he’s shooting, and it’s the exact opposite of the De Niro sit. No Can I get you anythings. No I just wanted to meet yous. No Kleenex boxes. Just a brilliant dissertation on the history of film. The only similarity between the two meetings—one of which lasts seven minutes, and one of which lasts approximately forever—is that in each one I say about twelve words.
Marty never sat down. Marty never stopped moving. Marty never stopped talking. It was truly astonishing to watch. I don’t recall ever being so worthless to a conversation in my life. I remember at one point actually thinking, Thank God he doesn’t need me to contribute because I can’t possibly keep up with whatever the hell he’s talking about. Every third sentence had a movie reference in it that I didn’t get: “That scene in act one is going to be just like that scene in The Dark Horse. You ever see The Dark Horse?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“1932. Alfred Green. Terrific picture. Anyhow, it’s gonna be just like that scene at the beginning of the film. But also kinda like Quicksand, 1923, Howard Hawks wrote it, Jack Conway directed. You see it?”
“Great film, great film. I’ll get you a print. Directly influenced Daughter of Deceit. Buñuel, 1951. You see it?”
“Underappreciated masterpiece. Guy’s a genius. Huge influence on . . .”
And so on.
I’m dizzy, enchanted, and frightened, but mostly I feel like I should keep my mouth shut because if I don’t say the wrong thing then the offer is still good, and I’ll do Casino.
Finally he asks me, “How’d it go with Bob? Did he sit there and say nothing?”
“He was . . . delightful.”
Nodding knowingly, Marty says, “Yeah, he doesn’t say much, does he?”
“No he doesn’t, sir.” I smile as he launches into a riff about Las Vegas films.
How does this guy get any work done, considering his inability to stop talking? What if this is never going to end? What if I have to spend the rest of my life in this trailer? What if I’m being verbally kidnapped?
One hour and thirty-seven minutes later, an assistant director who needed him on set negotiates my release. I’m older but somehow not wiser, my goatee is longer, my mind is blown—and I have the part.
Reprinted with permission, from ”How I Slept My Way to the Middle” by Kevin Pollak, published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press (2012).
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