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School Gets Lesson in Show Biz

Outreach: Actors mentor Birmingham High students about careers in the arts.

April 12, 2002|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The kids asked actor Tom Arnold how to make it in the film business, and with sobering honesty the comedian said: Stay away from drugs and alcohol, follow your dreams, and don't become famous by marrying someone who was famous first.

Of course, that was only Arnold's opinion. The students at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys on Thursday morning heard a myriad of viewpoints from a variety of celebrities, including Billy Baldwin and Sean Astin. The actors and industry people were there as part of the second annual "Stand Up for Class" mentoring day, in which entertainers encouraged kids to enrich their academic lives.

The program was organized by the Creative Coalition, a group of entertainment industry advocates who have lobbied in Washington for campaign finance reform and pushed for the arts in public schools. Birmingham was chosen because it offers a communications magnet and theater academy.

Speaking to a class of 70 drama students, Arnold and fellow actor David Paymer described the contrasting paths they took to Hollywood. Paymer grew up on Long Island in New York and took part in high school productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Once Upon a Mattress." Arnold grew up in Iowa and worked at a meatpacking plant.

"I followed my dream [of being an actor] by setting short-term goals that were reachable," said Paymer, who has been in the films "Mr. Saturday Night" and "City Slickers."

Arnold, who hosts Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period," told the class that the entertainment industry was difficult to succeed in and fraught with disappointment and long periods without work.

"I thought if I was on TV, everyone would like me," said Arnold, who was cheered after a student recounted his memorable bathroom scene in the film "Austin Powers." "Turns out, that's not necessarily true.... You have to learn to enjoy the struggle. Even the big stars like Jennifer Lopez and Tom Cruise deal with rejection."

Handling rejection and maintaining ambition was a central theme of the entertainers' messages. The guests also held a question-and-answer session with 400 students in the school auditorium.

"If you choose the arts as a career, you will fail a lot more than you will succeed. So you better get used to it," said actor Stephen Collins, who stars in the television show "7th Heaven."

The discussion gave senior Rachel Young second thoughts about pursuing a career in acting.

"It seems so hard," said the 18-year-old drama student. "I don't think I'd be able to do it. It's too scary."

Another senior drama student, Wayne Smith, said he was more encouraged than discouraged.

"I think they gave me hope," Smith said. "I'd want to be a director."

For the students, there was also the excitement of having movie and TV stars on campus. Shouts of "You're hot!" rang out in the auditorium from girls when Baldwin spoke.

One student asked Leeza Gibbons, host of the syndicated show "Extra," who did her hair. And when Sean Astin spoke, chants of "Rudy, Rudy" broke out, in reference to his role as an inspirational Notre Dame football player in the film "Rudy."

"It's nice to know Tom Arnold is as funny in real life as he is on screen," said freshman Chris Kopitzke.

Speaking to the students in the auditorium, Baldwin was asked to explain why he was at the school.

"We want to share with you what's going on and what your future holds for you because we've been down that path," he said. "We want to inspire you."

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