Monday, June 2, 2014

Career Tips from Dirk Diggler's Mother

When we're asked who our favorite and most influential teachers were, we tend to mention the ones we  had in elementary or high school.  One of my favorite and most influential teachers celebrates a birthday today.  She came along during my VH1 years (1987-1990).  She's actress/singer Joanna Gleason.  In fact, I had on-camera TV work, national and local, through the 1990s because of the fabulous Joanna Gleason.
Joanna and I met via my VH1 talk show work.  Bobby McFerrin was a most interesting and gracious guest.  His Grammy winning record producer/manager accompanied him to my talk show for the interview.  She and  I not only hit it off, we discovered that we were L.A. kids who remembered things like local TV kiddie show host, Sheriff John, Fedco stores and the Watts Riots.  Linda Goldstein, McFerrin's manager, wanted to talk to me some more and invited me to a casual weekend brunch at Joanna Gleason's home.  She and Linda are good friends.  When I replied, "Joanna Gleason from I Love My Wife?," Linda said "You're definitely coming over."  I had that original Broadway cast album in my record collection.

The world would be a better place if more people had access to Joanna Gleason's cooking and her good advice.  Her brunch food had my tastebuds shouting in ecstasy like James Brown:  "I feel good!"  My contract for three wonderful years at VH1 was coming to an end.  Joanna invited me to take her weekly classes.  There was singing involved in her classes and I quickly told her, "I'm not a singer.  I have a fear of singing in front of people."  She answered, "Perfect.  Take my class."

I did and I learned a lot.  My first callback for a dramatic acting role came because of lessons learned in "Gleason's Gym" when I sang "Pennies From Heaven."  She'd watched my VH1 talk show and liked it.  This was before we met.  When we met, I'd recently interviewed a major TV star who had a hit comedy movie in theaters.  Moments after our introduction in her apartment, she asked "Was he as much a nudnik in person as he seemed to be in that interview?"  I broke up laughing because...he was.

Joanna's classes are still in my heart.  She was knowledgeable, witty, surprising, innovative and passionate.  She demanded discipline of the students and herself.  There was a good reason why we each had to select, memorize and sing a song -- whether we possessed fine voices or not.  She was generous with her praise and support.  She was extremely helpful with her always constructive criticism.  Joanna gave you the way to make your work better.  She gave me her number and told me to call her if I ever had a question or a problem outside of class.  I loved those chats.
I also loved seeing her Tony-winning performance as the Baker's Wife in Sondheim's Into The Woods.  She was luminous in that musical fable as half of a childless couple, disappointed because she doesn't have "a bun in the oven."  She wants a child.  She strays...into the woods.  Joanna made a make-believe character so believable.
The big movie musical version of it, starring Meryl Streep as The Witch, opens in December.

On television, you've seen Joanna in episodes of The Good Wife.  She'll be in episodes of the new Kim Cattrall comedy/drama series, Sensitive Skin.  You've seen Joanna in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters as the wife whose husband was asked to be a sperm donor.  You saw her in Crimes and Misdemeanors as the wife who has grown a bit sour because she's been so romantically ignored by her husband, played by Woody.  Millions saw her as Dirk Diggler's angry mother in Boogie Nights.

I like to tell people that I once got great career advice from Dirk Diggler's mother.
I was in New York City, booking working in TV commercials and I had a fun part-time gig as a clerk in Chelsea neighborhood video store.  In my final VH1 year, I'd also been a semi-regular on Pat Sajak's short-lived CBS late night talk show.  One of the show's segment producers had moved on to another project.  He was working on a new syndicated late night game show, sort of a spin-off from Studs.  Remember Studs?  It was a popular and cheesy late night dating game show where women came on and picked one of three young bachelors for a date.  It was reminiscent of The Dating Game.  The spin-off, Bedroom Buddies, had a hint of The Newlywed Game.

The former Sajak show staffer called me and said that, if I could be in the L.A. area, he could get me into auditions for the host spot.  He told me to think about it and call him back later.  I called Joanna for advice.  Studs was cheesy.  Bedroom Buddies could be cheesy.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it.

"Work leads to other work," she said on the phone.  She told me the importance of promoting yourself and not leaving it all to an agent do.  She then sweetly told me not to turn down work if I'm not already booked in a gig.  Only turn it down if I could afford to turn it down.  Every job may not be a critical hit, but you do the best you can because someone might see it and think of you for another project.

I wasn't booked in anything.  My work at that time was solely at the video store.  I redeemed some frequent flyer mileage and got a ticket to L.A. with other words of advice from Joanna Gleason in my head:  "Just have fun with it."

I got the audition.  It was one of the most fun experiences I'd ever had at an audition in my career.  I was relaxed.  I was funny.  The writers complimented me on my audition.  But I didn't get the job.

The next time I was in her class, I told Joanna that I didn't get the job but I loved the audition.  After class she revealed to me that she had given her all to an audition for a role she really, really wanted.  It was the lead role in the tour of a big Broadway hit.  She knew that her acting and her singing made her perfect for the part.  But she didn't get the part.  Disappointed, she went home, took a shower, put on some pretty clothes and had a loved one take her out to dinner so she could put the disappointment behind her.

The very next day, she got a call to audition for Into The Woods, the musical that brought her the Tony Award for Best Actress.

I had a buddy take me out for some cheap eats and we laughed a lot.  I put my disappointment behind me.

A few days later, I was almost out the door to do my shift at the video store when my phone rang.  It was the executive producer for Bedroom Buddies.  The actor they'd hired had to withdraw for medical reasons and they'd have to reshoot the shows he'd already taped.  The writers really liked me and I was their second choice to be host.  If I was still interested, the producer asked if he could put me on a flight the next day to come be the new host.

I flew out to be the host for that syndicated summer replacement game show.  It was fun, it helped me pay off a few bills, it was a cheesy show.  I did my best with the material given to me.  In New York City, it aired weeknights on Fox5.

A local news executive on WNBC saw the show and thought of me for a new weekend morning news program in preparation for its premiere.  That's the show highlighted in my previous blog post, the one about Madonna and me.  The new local morning news program soon to debut was Weekend Today in New York.  My work as the host of Bedroom Buddies led to me becoming part of the original morning team on WNBC's Weekend Today in New York.  I started in September 1992 and left the show in January 1995.  In October 1995, I was approached to join the Good Day New York team on Fox5 because the executive producer had seen me on Weekend Today in New York.  I did the Fox5 show from 1995 to 1999.

Three on-camera gigs that all came about because I got excellent advice from Dirk Diggler's mother.  I wish a Most Groovy Birthday today to the sensational Joanna Gleason.

And, yes, I know she's the daughter of famed TV game show host, Monty Hall.


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