At a TV commercial audition last year, a tall, thin English actor came up to me and said, "Beg pardon. When I was in London, there was a show called 'Head of the Class.' Did anyone ever say that you look just like one of the actors from that program?"
"Oh, no, really?" I replied, feigning surprise.
"Yes, yes, you do. Well, sort of, in a way. More from a distance, I suppose."
I amused myself, withholding the fact that I was the guy from that show.
"I bet you wish you had that fellow's career, huh?" he chirped. Before I could reply, his voice took on a dark tone of abject mockery. "I mean, of course, the one he had then, not the one he has now."
"Huh," I muttered, disguising my wince as a spec of dust in my eye.
I played a nerdy high school student named Arvid--until I was 32, no less. Amazing what a baby face and short, greasy hair can do. Sometime later, I spent four years on a Nickelodeon sitcom called "Kenan & Kel," playing another bumbling type, but sans the geeky glasses and campy crop. I felt like quite the TV celeb, as kids and their mothers often approached me, each surprised that the other recognized me from one of their favorite shows.
But that was years before. Here, the Englishman made me realize that I was just one of them: a journeyman actor who'd sold his soul to the devil for sitcom success, only to find that after nine years of playing essentially the same quirky character, the ladder to juicier roles seemed to have vanished. The Sitcom Devil might give you another series, but the next might be a reality show, featuring you and a handful of other TV "veterans." Or perhaps you could find yourself trading fisticuffs on an Ultimate Fighting Celebrity Nerd show. (Screech and Horshack performed in one such indignity.)
Bottom line, however, no complaints here. I had great fun and would do it all again tomorrow. And I was afforded all the trappings of a series actor's success--the recognition, the residuals and plenty of fan mail from guys in prison. Charity and promotional travel had me playing tennis against Billie Jean King (I lost. I'm not a tennis player.). Also, oddly enough, I once talked showbiz and politics to an advanced economics class at Moscow State University. Here in the States, I was honored with an auto- graph signing in a Minneapolis department store hosiery section, where a petite elderly woman asked me to move so she could compare pantyhose prices.
Sincerely gratifying, though, was forging some great friendships with fellow actors. Two of the guys and I took a weekend trip to Vegas, where we ended up at a notorious brothel in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. When the madame recognized us, one of our coproducers (who'd come along!) said, "Um, these guys are on a high school TV show, so it's important that nobody finds out they were here."
The madame said, "Oh, we get celebrities here all the time and we never say a word." She then blabbed the names of her three top celebrity clients. Trepidation aside, we were glad to find ourselves in A-list company.
Back to the commercial audition: As I was leaving, I went up to the English actor and said, "By the way, I am the guy from that show."
"Oh, God, man, I'm sorry, I, I had no idea! I don't know what to say, I--"
"No, no, it's OK," I chuckled. "I'll be telling this story for years to come."