In Los Angeles, you turn on the television and see one of your neighbors jumping over a wall on a cop show. Or getting off a good line in a situation comedy. Some people go to work in law firms or hospitals or restaurant kitchens. Television actors--the lucky few who land parts--go to studios. It's a job.
It is also a dream, and for my neighbor Kopi Sotiropulos, the dream is starting to fade.
"I remember 10 years ago I got this good part on a show with David Janssen and I thought, 'This is it--we're on our way,' " Kopi said the other day as we had a beer at his house. Our children swirled around us, taking their games out into the yard and back inside again. Because Kopi often shows up in one television show or another, I could picture a child tackling the mystery of this: "Hey, didn't I just see you on TV? What are you doing here? Are we on TV?"
When he got that part with Janssen, in the TV movie "Nowhere to Run," Kopi had just moved down from Fresno with his bride, Elaine. The show needed someone with "a Mediterranean look." Kopi was born in Greece in 1948 and came to the United States with his parents when he was 3. He is short and dark. He can grow a beard overnight.
"I was always acting when I grew up in Fresno," Kopi says. "Elementary school. High school. There I was, in high school, playing characters created by the great George Bernard Shaw. You get hooked. One day I said, 'What the heck, let's go to L.A.' "
As we talked, Elaine straightened up the living room. The real estate agent would be coming by with a young couple to look at the house.
Watching Elaine reminded me that Los Angeles is losing Kopi and his dream--and that my neighborhood is losing its anchor: the big, old house that is always open; Kopi brewing Greek coffee to get you past the 3 o'clock hump on a Sunday; Elaine letting your kids come over at the last minute when your sitter doesn't show; Kopi putting on a Halloween costume for enraptured children who wonder, "Did this crazy man just fall out of the sky?"
Over the years Kopi has been in hundreds of TV shows, from "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "Soap" to "Highway to Heaven." He usually gets to say a few lines, but they are bit parts just the same. If he's lucky, he's on the screen for four minutes.
"As the years go by and the parts don't get any bigger or better," Kopi says, "you begin to re-evaluate. And you begin to consider the fact that it may never happen. The big break, I mean.
"I look ethnic. You realize pretty quickly that you'll be typecast. 'Hey,' says your agent, 'they need a terrorist with a good accent. They need a Middle Eastern liquor-store owner.'
"You show up to read for a part and there are five other guys who look just like you. It gets to be funny. So what you hope for is a role on a show that catches on and runs a long time. You know, the neighbor across the hall, the deli owner."
Kopi believes that he came close not long ago.
"Mike Hammer" needed a pretzel vendor. The part called for Kopi to make small talk with series star 2Stacy Keach, who was waiting for a woman.
"The way Stacy and I were interacting," Kopi says, "I thought there might be some way for this character to become a semi-regular. You know, the guy on the street who's a pal of Mike Hammer. But the script called for a big limo to make a run at Hammer and try to kill him. It killed me instead."
Steady work on a popular show means good money while it's running in prime time, and it can also mean paychecks for years if the reruns are syndicated. But some years, Kopi has made as little as $8,000.
"There've been a lot of lean times," Kopi says. "Then you get a big residual check for some part you did years ago and you say, 'Hey, we can pay the mortgage this month.' That keeps you going. But we have decided we just can't keep doing it."
Kopi expects to sell the house by January and move his family back to Fresno, where the cost of living is lower and he can get steady production work at a TV station.
So Kopi's dream is fading. Still, it isn't dead: "My agent talked me into getting some new photographs. And I have some people down here who'll keep a lookout for me."