Monday, December 14, 2009

So you want to be an actor?

Does your son, daughter or another young person that you know want to be an actor? Are you worried that they might think that all they have to do is move to Hollywood and acting jobs will just fall into their laps or they’ll be “discovered”? Are they impervious to your advice and cautions? Want to try another approach? I have a homework assignment to suggest. The idea behind this homework assignment is that intentionally embarking on any career requires research beforehand. While this exercise does require some effort and focus, you should know that acting will often require even more effort and focus than this will. I know nobody likes homework, but this one might even be fun. (The celebrated acting teacher Sanford Meisner said, “Acting can be fun—don’t let it get around,” but notice that he said it “can be fun,” not that it’s fun all the time.)

Now, select a sample of actors. A manageable way to make a selection is to go to and search for “American actors born 1940s”—or “1950s,” “1960s” or whatever you would prefer. (I would recommend not using the 1990s or 2000s because that is too recent to account for the fact that most actors do not become well-known until their 20s or 30s, and no one born during or after 1990 is 20, at least not yet.) Wikipedia lists notable American television and film actors by decade of birth, so you will now have a list of between 100 and 200 American actors. (Substitute your own nationality, of course.) Actually, the list is apt to be closer to 100 than 200. This might give pause at the outset. If there are under 200 names, you might ponder your chances of finding a place on such a short list. And while these are “notable” actors who have made films or television programs, there will be many actors on the list who are not especially well known. So how do you feel about the obscurity of being near-famous? Do you want to be an actor because you want to act or because you want to be famous? Those who only want fame might be disappointed.

Next look up the biographies of the actors on the list. My recommendation is to use wikipedia first; then, for the ones whose biographies you cannot find on wikipedia, use Internet Movie Database ( From this process you will have to throw out some names. In my own attempt to use my system, I started with a list of about 125 names, 40 of which I threw out for lack of enough biographical information as well as one because he did not quite fit the “American” definition. (He did not have a showbiz career at all until he went back to his parents’ homeland where his movie career took place.) This is an entirely unscientific survey not least of all because I cannot account for the people I had to throw out: maybe many of them went to Hollywood and acting jobs just fell into their laps. That isn’t likely, but I cannot say that it didn’t happen.

I selected American actors and actresses born in the 1940s. This happens to be the cohort from the decade before I was born, and, by now, its members have not only developed their careers, but some have already died. Some people on the list have even given up acting and long since found other careers.

From the often spare biographies, what can you glean about what these actors did to prepare themselves? To find out, you need to come up with some broad categories and pigeonhole these actors in terms of what they were doing before they became actors. Otherwise you’ll end up with raw information and no clear way to analyze it. I came up with the following categories:

1) Attended college (I didn’t require that they graduate—though many did—just so long as they gave it “the old college try.”)
2) Attended college majoring in drama or theater
3) Studied drama formally outside of a traditional college program
4) Were child actors (Acting jobs really did fall on these people’s laps—or on their heads.)
5) Were offspring of a parent or parents in show business (not always actors)
6) Had another talent they traded on, or had another occupation either before or after their acting career (including but not limited to deliberate backup plans)

I also considered using the category of the rank amateur who is "discovered," but only one actor in my sample appears to have been discovered without having attended college or prepared for any other career. A few other of my actors were “discovered” but were already plying another trade at the time. Most often, they were “discovered” while performing on stage, and not always while acting. Professional singers and standup comics seem to have a better than average chance of being “discovered.”

After whittling my sample down to 85 names, I found that 45 of these had at least attended an undergraduate college. Of them, at least 21 majored in drama or theater. (A few had a dual major such as drama and history.) An additional eleven attended a non-traditional school where they studied acting. Most (though not all) of those eleven attended The Actors Studio, which has two branches in New York and Hollywood. Getting into these schools is nothing to sneeze at. You have to audition in order to prove to them that they wouldn’t be wasting their time training you. Also, ten actors in my sample studied acting after a traditional college education, and some of these earned M.F.A. degrees.

Twelve of the 85 were child actors. In many cases, their parents got them into the business before they were able to decide for themselves, although I did include in this category a few actors who entered the business in their early teens and may have been motivated by their own interests. While there are five actors who were the offspring of actors or other performers (such as musicians), only one was both a child actor and the offspring of performers. Evidently, not all performers will expect or allow their own children to become actors before they are of age.

Thirty-eight of my actors were not strictly dependent on acting. Often they had other show business talents before they became actors, being able to sing or dance, for example. Many are also teachers of the performing arts. Indeed, at least four on my list have traditional teaching credentials. One actress holds a Ph.D. in psychology, and former actor Michael Sacks has an M.A. in computer science. He actually gave up acting to work in financial computing on Wall Street.

Clichés are clichés for a reason: There is truth in them. Most people who become professional actors never become household names, and a surpisingly large number of those who make a living at it turn out to have gone to school, studied and did not rely entirely on their charm and native talent to get by. Indeed, my impression from reading the biographies of actors is that they very often get their breaks in acting through knowing producers, directors, and other actors. A story that I found in Robert Vaughn's memoir, "A Fortunate Life," might illustrate this point. In 1960, a director phoned Vaughn to offer him a part in the movie "The Magnificent Seven." The director was desperate to cast others before a deadline, and yet Vaughn was only the third actor to accept a part. Did he know any other actors who might be available? Vaughn recommended an unknown actor who happened to be a college classmate of Vaughn's. That unknown actor was James Coburn who arguably became a bigger star than Vaughn and never forgot his friend's help.

Here is my list:

Lee Aaker: Child actor from the age of 8, became a ski instructor among other things.
Beverly Adams: Canadian-born but grew up in Los Angeles; became a teenage beauty contestant which led to an acting career.
Patrick Adiarte: Professional dancer who also specialized in playing Asian characters.
Franklyn Ajaye: Began as a musician and became a standup comic before acting.
Christopher Allport: Began acting at age 9 and continued acting while attending Northwestern University.
Beverly Archer: Studied drama at San Francisco State University and UC Santa Barbara.
Carmen Argenziano: Studied at The Actors Studio.
John Ashton: Graduated from the University of Southern California where he majored in theater.
Candice Azzara: Studied acting at The Actors Studio.
Regina Baff: Also holds a Ph.D. in psychology.
Belinda Balaski: Began acting at age 5 and won drama scholarships in college; now teaches acting.
Jonathan Banks: Dropped out of university to become stage manager of a touring company. Worked in theater management for several years before turning to acting.
John Berg: After attending two universities, worked as a manager in various businesses, a disk jockey, and sportswriter before becoming an actor.
Jeannie Berlin: Daughter of a writer-director.
Michael Brandon: Studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and The Actors Studio.
Fran Brill: Holds a degree in fine arts from Boston University.
Roy Brocksmith: Graduated from Quincy University before moving to New York and auditioning for the stage.
Roger Aaron Brown: Shakespearean actor.
Jim Byrnes: Studied acting at two universities and was an accomplished blues guitarist before landing his first job as an actor.
Cindy Carol: Child actress gave up acting to become a school teacher.
Suzanne Charney: Dancing brought her to television and she acted for the next two decades.
Joseph Cortese: Stage experience beginning with the study of method acting.
Jeffrey DeMunn: After graduating from Union College, went to England where he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He became a member of the National Shakespeare Company.
Mary Jo Deschanel: Studied film and acting at UCLA.
Jeff Doucette: Graduated from Lewis College (Illinois).
Troy Evans: Vietnam War Vet became a character actor in his mid-30s.
Tom Everett: Studied at The Actors Studio and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
Dennis Fimple: Studied speech and drama at San Jose College. Worked as a school teacher before getting his break on TV.
Robert Foxworth: Began stage career as an apprentice in Houston, Texas in the 1950s. Also attended college.
Carl Franklin: Studied history and drama at UC Berkeley. Later earned an M.A. in directing from the American Film Institute.
James Gammon: Was a television cameraman before stepping in front of the camera.
Louis Giambalvo: Holds an M.F.A. from SUNY Binghamton.
Don Grady: Child actor discovered by Disney. Gave up acting for a musical career.
Gerrit Graham: Attended but did not graduate from Columbia University. Also known as a songwriter.
Joe Grifasi: Studied at Yale Drama School.
Gary Grubbs: As a would-be television writer, he got his start in acting as a fluke.
Larry Hankin: Studied acting at Syracuse University.
Wings Hauser: Born in Hollywood, he is the son of a producer and brother of an actor.
Robert Hays: Educated at Grossmont College in California.
Gayle Hunnicutt: Attended UCLA and was a model.
Peter Jason: Studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Institute of Technology).
Herbert Jefferson, Jr.: Graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
James M. “Jim” Kelly: After dropping out of college, he earned a black belt in karate and became an international middle-weight champion and began teaching karate. After appearing in several martial arts movies he lost interest in acting.
Art LaFleur: Attended University of Kentucky where he played football. Began acting in his mid-30s.
Rod Lauren: Discovered while singing in night clubs; turned a lackluster recording career into a brief acting career in mostly low-budget horror films.
Dan Lauria: Attended Southern Connecticut State University where he acted and played football.
Donna Loren: After winning talent contests as a child, she sang in commercials and later in movies. She gave up her acting career to focus on family and music.
Tim McIntire: The son of two actors, got his first movie role at 20. Born and died (young) in Hollywood.
Murray MacLeod: Son of an actress; formed a ‘60s singing group with his sister and a friend.
Frank McRae: Graduated from Tennessee State University with a double major in drama and history. Was also a professional football player before becoming an actor.
Victoria Mallory: New York stage career began on strength of her singing ability and led to TV and film.
Joanna Miles: After graduating from private school, joined The Actors Studio in New York.
Penelope Milford: Stage acting in high school in Illinois led to Chicago and then New York theater.
Don Mitchell: Studied acting at UCLA.
Jim Moody: Came to film acting after age 30, but was also a high school drama teacher.
Debra Mooney: Broke into television acting after a career on the stage in Chicago.
Anita Morris: Studied with the American Mime Theatre.
Brad Morrow: Child actor (from age 2) who later became a businessman.
Christopher Murney: Degrees include an M.F.A. from Pennsylvania State University.
Lou Myers: Seems to have come to acting relatively late in life.
Ed O'Ross: After attending Carnegie Mellon University, he studied method acting in New York.
Felton Perry: Started out as a mime (school?).
Lauri Peters: Teen actress, singer and dancer on Broadway at 16; also studied method acting which she now teaches.
Richard Poe: Graduated from the University of San Francisco and served in the U.S. Army before becoming a professional actor.
Richard Portnow: Graduated with a degree in speech and theater from Brooklyn College.
Ben Powers: Standup comic, singer and repertory theater actor, was spotted by a Hollywood agent and signed to appear in films.
Gilbert Price: New York City native began singing on stage.
Steve Railsback: Studied at The Actors Studio.
Pamela Reed: Graduated from the University of Washington.
Chelcie Ross: After graduating from Southwest Texas State University and service in the U.S. Air Force, earned an M.F.A. from the Dallas Theatre Center.
Robert Sacchi: Made his career by looking almost exactly like Humphrey Bogart.
Michael Sacks: With degrees from Harvard and Columbia universities, he left acting to become a financial computing executive.
Marc Singer: Son of musical performers, he and his younger sister both act.
Lionel Mark Smith: Attended the Goodman School of Drama, now part of DePaul University.
Tisha Sterling: Daughter of two actors, she began acting when she was young but has acted rarely in recent years.
Marcia Strassman: Was singing, modeling and acting on stage in New York by the time she was 15.
Peter Strauss: Graduated from Northwestern University.
Margaret Teele: Amateur acting in high school led to a brief acting career in the 1960s.
Beverly Todd: Appeared professionally in a stage play when she was 14. At 18 was in a stage musical in London.
Concetta Tomei: Was a certified school teacher before earning a degree in theater.
Michael Tucker: Earned acting degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Stage experience and teaching before film and TV.
Ann Turkel: Childhood education included the Musical Theatre Academy in New York (classes in acting, dancing and singing). Stage work and modeling before film and TV.
Robert Walden: Graduated New York City College; studied acting and later taught at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
Katherine Walsh: Graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Debbie Watson: Became a child actress by age 14 after appearing on “The Original Amateur Hour.” Career was over by age 23.
Hattie Mae Winston: Graduate of Howard University and New York’s Group Theatre Workshop.