by Gayle Bartos-Pool
When I first moved to Sunny Southern California in the early Seventies, I decided I should take acting lessons. Not that I thought of taking Hollywood by storm, after all, I was no glamour girl or even thought I had any latent acting ability.
My only claim to fame by that time was playing Girl Number Two in a high school production of Sabrina Fair. I had maybe two lines, but I did get a few laughs when my character had to feign a headache to make another character think that was why me and the Boyfriend, another minor character, were out on the patio getting some fresh air. I guess I did the funny bit of business well enough to get a chuckle from the audience. As for the girl who played Sabrina, Trish Stewart went on to an acting career in Hollywood. She was in the short-lived TV show with Andy Griffith called Salvage 1 and a recurring role on The Young and the Restless.
But a television career wasn’t why I wanted to take acting lessons. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to know what writers needed to learn about writing dialogue and thought acting lessons would give me an insight into all those words actors should be saying on stage and on the screen.
I got an agent, a job… and a life lesson. I saw an ad in the newspaper about an exclusive acting class being taught by a couple of people from Hollywood. I use the term “exclusive” because the class cost money. It was several hundred dollars, so I thought it was going to be really good. Well, one of the guys who was to run this class ran off with the money. Many people were screwed. The other partner who was as surprised, if not as screwed, as the rest of us, took pity on little ol’ me and asked if I would like to be the nanny cum housekeeper for him, his wife, and his four kids. I needed a job, so I said yes.
This guy was a talent agent. A real one. One of his clients had been Agnes Moorehead. Another client was James MacArthur. I actually met James when he flew into Hollywood from his gig in Hawaii doing Hawaii 5-0. James kept his little sports car in my boss’s barn on their property in Encino. His battery was dead, so he asked if he could borrow my little VW and go get one. I tossed him the keys and went back to my nanny/housekeeper duties. Their house was always a mess, so the three days a week I worked over there I tidied up and played with the young kids, all of whom were pre-school or in elementary school.
During the nine months I worked for him, he got me into an acting class. The first class was taught by Bruce Glover. Old Bruce has been in a bunch of movies like Diamonds Are Forever and Chinatown and just about every TV series during his forty-year plus career. Something you might notice when he is in a movie is the fact that he makes sure he is either somewhere in the background of any scene even if he isn’t the guy doing the talking or while doing his scene he makes the most of it. In that I mean he is always doing some bit of business to capture the attention of the viewer. Sometimes the director will yell “Cut” and stop the attention grabbing, but many times that little extra shtick is the cherry on top of a scene.
And what does this have to do with writing, you may ask? It’s just this: Sometimes the writer needs to make a minor character more interesting by giving him or her a quirk, a trait, a personality. They don’t have to stay on the page or the screen all that long, but isn’t it fun to read or see a character who isn’t cardboard?
I still use that little trick I learned from Bruce about instilling a few minor characters with some unique trait just to make them more interesting and memorable. In fact, there are several characters that started out in a minor role who ended up with a much bigger part. Bruce would get a kick out of that fact, because he often said that “extra bit of business” might lead to an expanded role.
In the opening of my novel Caverns, the policeman who discovers the first body mauled by large rats in underground Chicago was to be a minor character if not just a “walk-on,” but I liked him so much he became one of the leads. In Hedge Bet I had originally picked one character to be the guilty party, but then I thought her character had only limited depth. This other character had far more opportunity for mayhem because he kept turning up in all the right places, so his part was expanded and he even had the original suspect bumped off.
In my Johnny Casino Series, I introduced an aging actress in one of the first short stories in the first book. I liked her so much, she kept coming back along with her butler who had a past to die for, so he turned into a charming regular, too. See, there are no small parts. Those little traits we write into our characters end up with a life of their own.
That brings me to the second acting class I took. The talent agent I was working for thought I might like to try another class taught by a couple of guys he admired. The guys were Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell. Rudy starred in Garrison’s Gorillas. As for Guy Stockwell, he guested in just about every TV series there was for decades.
I have mentioned in other articles how Rudy had us actors write a biography of the character we were playing so we had an idea who our character was before we stepped onto the stage. You would have to make this stuff up, but the script gave you a lot of information and the genre of the piece would give you more parameters. To this day I write a biography of my main character and sketches of other people in a story. This will help you remember who everybody is, how they look, their age, and important details that you might need later. You don’t want “John” twenty-five years old on page 34 with blue eyes to turn into “John” forty-five years old on page 76 with brown eyes. It keeps you on track and if you bring the character back in a sequel you don’t have to read your first book to acquaint yourself with those facts.
But something else was gleaned from Rudy’s class. Improv. There is nothing like your acting teacher asking you to get up on that stage and do a scene with another actor with only a few words describing the scene. The one scene I remember doing was when another actor and I were to be an abusive husband and the long-suffering wife having a conversation. “She could kill him” was my prompt.
I started out playing the meek wife taking his abuse, but I kept countering his jibes with subtle remarks. When the scene was over and Rudy said “Stop,” he walked over to me and asked what I had in my hand. I had taken a piece of paper with me to the stage. It was probably what I wrote notes on, but it was in my hand, but as Rudy noted it had been folded and folded until it looked a bit like a knife. I hadn’t realized exactly doing it, but my character sure did. Scary? Maybe. But characters do have a life of their own. Give them free reign and see what they come up with.
The other interesting time in acting class was when my good friend and fellow actor, Karen Markham, and I were doing a scene from The Odd Couple. Let me digress for just a second and tell you a story or two. It’s relevant.
Rudy thought it might be interesting to have women play the lead in that play and later movie and even later a fabulous TV series written originally by Neil Simon. Rudy asked Karen and I to do a scene from the play. We christened Karen’s role as Esther (Oscar) and I played Felicia (Felix). We did one of the earlier scenes in the play. We rehearsed quite a bit and thought we had the roles down, but you know actors. Digging deeper into a role is always better.
We decided we should take the act “on the road.” That meant that we would go someplace “in character” and see how we did. There was a bar fairly close to where the acting class was, so we went there after class one night. It was a hangout for actors and stuntmen called The Drawing Board. We went in, Karen as the men-loving gal who always had a smart remark and me as the meek, penny-pinching woman who found dirt everywhere.
I ordered a Harvey Wallbanger. (You aren’t the only one who liked them, Paul D. Marks.) Before the bartender set it down, I cleaned the spot in front of me. I complained openly about Esther making a spectacle of herself and Karen gave it back to me in spades. When the bartender told me how much my drink was, I gasped at the high price and said that I wasn’t buying drinks for the entire bar. Karen told me I was a penny-pinching old maid. The bartender laughed and then said, “Talk about the odd couple.”
Well, I broke character and laughed. Several of the guys around us took notice and I confessed that we were actors rehearsing our characters for Rudy Solari’s acting class. They got a kick out of it. Oh, and I didn’t have to pay for the drink. Don Stroud, the actor who starred in The New Mike Hammer and a million other TV shows, picked up the tab for Karen, and stuntman Paul Nuckles bought mine. We never had to pay for a drink in the place after that. Nice guys.
So back to my original point. Karen and I knew our roles. We knew the characters. We did the scene for Guy Stockwell one evening at the acting studio and he liked it, then he asked how well we knew the scene and did we know each other’s part? Yes. Next he said, “Switch roles.” We did. Karen played the fastidious Felicia and I played the ballsy Esther.
We did it without a hitch and to tell you the truth, it was exhilarating. We were totally free. No constraints. Exactly what your characters in your stories should be when you give them free reign to be themselves. You know who they are. You wrote a biography for most of those main characters. Now let them take you where they want to go. That’s the point I am trying to make in this article.
You will be surprised when you free a character to speak his own mind or let her go where she really wants to go. Trust them. And maybe take an acting class to let you see what dialogue and character on the hoof is like. You’re out there on a stage and the words are alive. Make your characters come alive as well. They will love you for it. And so will your readers.