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A grad dreams of Hollywood and a day job he can quit

October 20, 2002|Alex Berger | Special to The Times

When I finished college four months ago and decided to try my luck in Hollywood, I knew breaking in here would be tough. But I figured that if I talked to enough people, one was bound to reveal the "secret formula" for success. I met with friends, who led me to their friends, who led me to their uncles, who led me to their tennis partners, who led me to their ex-wives' tennis partners, and so on, and every one of them had career advice.

One of my first talks was with Aaron, a former screenwriter turned literary agent. He had seen the business from multiple angles and thus seemed like an ideal candidate to lead me in the right direction.

When Aaron first started, he said, he made ends meet by working as a chauffeur for a "somewhat shady" escort service. Good pay, flexible hours, plenty of downtime to write -- sounded perfect for me.

"Where do I sign up?" I asked.

"It's not that glamorous," he cautioned. "You see, 'escort' services don't just 'escort,' if you catch my drift."

"Not quite -- what else do they do?"

His answer burst the bubble. "Prostitution. Drug dealing. The occasional getaway driving."

He might've been pulling my leg, but I decided to play it safe and scratch the chauffeur plan.

Ben, a sitcom writer I knew from college, suggested forgoing steady employment altogether. "Lock yourself in a room until you have enough material to land a steady writing deal," he said. While he was launching himself with that plan, he told me, he'd paid the bills by doing freelance work for a company called Parke-Davis.

Here was an appealing option -- all the flexibility of the chauffeur job without the potential for serving eight to 12 with no parole. Still, I knew that options like "earn fabulous money working at home" always seem to have a catch.

"Exactly what kind of freelance work did you do?" I asked.

As it turns out, Parke-Davis is a division of Pfizer pharmaceuticals, and Ben had been somewhat lower on the organization chart than the folks who hand out free samples in doctors' offices. "It's easy," he explained. "You pop a few pills and they strap some wires to your head. Once your vision gets blurry you press the little button and you're done."

Next I tried my cousin's friend Ken, an executive at a major network. His schedule was jammed, so I had to patch his advice together from a series of interrupted cell-phone conversations. Internships are the way to start, he told me. "You're doing such interesting work and learning so much. At the end, they'll work really hard to find you a job."

This one I could translate for myself. Having done internships for numerous shows before, I knew entertainment people speak in code:

"Doing such interesting work" means: valet parking the star's Mercedes.

"Learning so much": discovering -- the hard way -- that you should not balance the producer's chef salad on top of the research staff's lattes, unless you want to earn the nickname "Timmy Coffee-Pants."

"At the end, they'll work really hard to find you a job": The internship coordinator, forgetting your name, sees you off with a heartfelt, "Goodbye ... you."

It was early in the game, but I was getting frustrated. I looked up an old high school friend in New York, not for advice, but to vent. As we chatted in Central Park, I noticed a man listening to our conversation. He was around 50 and wore a tattered overcoat two sizes too big -- probably something he found in a garbage bin or a shelter. His pile of uncombed black hair jutted in 12 directions. One hand held a coffee mug, the other a bulging garbage bag.

"I overheard you fellas talking about Hollywood," he interrupted. "Used to work out there myself. Worked for all the studios, all the networks, all the agencies. They all wanted me, but I didn't need their politics, you know?"

He paused for a sip of coffee and a slight bit of effect. "I used to be in your boat. Asked all sorts of nice people for advice. They told me their stories. But I'll tell you something -- there's only one thing you need to know about show business."

Had I misjudged this man? I leaned in, anticipating his revelation.

"You can't imitate success. Nobody's path works for somebody else. Stumble into success your own way."

As he got up to leave, he handed me a business card with the name "MICHAEL SPARROW" in thick block letters and a small phone number printed below. With that, he walked away.

A few months -- and several well-intentioned advisors -- later, I came across Michael Sparrow's card in an old notebook. I thought about the wisdom of what he said that day in the park, and on impulse, I called the number.

His raspy voice rambled on the answering machine. I decided not to leave a message. On reflection, I figured I'd learned about as much as I needed from him.

I hung up and filed the card away back in the notebook.

But the longer I stumble toward what I hope is success, the more I think of Michael Sparrow.

Sometimes you get your best advice from the strangest sources. You just have to be ready to listen.

*

Alex Berger recently relocated to Los Angeles after graduating from Dartmouth College. He hopes to eventually make a career of sitcom writing, but in the meantime is looking for a steady job that won't cause long-term medical side effects.

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