by Gary North
by Gary North
Does the name "Byron Foulger" ring a bell? Probably not. But does his face ring a bell? If you are on Social Security, it will. Test me. Click here.
That face has been appearing on movie screens and TV screens ever since the early 1930's.
The Internet Movie Data Base is one of the marvels of the Web. It would not have been possible without the Web. You can trace the film and TV careers of anyone. The data base usually lists the character's name in the movies. This amazes me. Look at the list for Foulger.
It's mind-boggling. It begins in 1932 and ends in 1970. He died in April 1970. The guy never stopped working.
His wife adopted the same career strategy. Tens of millions of us saw her for over four decades and never knew her name. But we remember the face. Were it not for Google Images, I would not have been able to identify her. This was about 10 pages into the list for "Dorothy Adams."
Look at her IMDB list of films. You should do as well in whatever it is that you do.
This couple came from Utah to Hollywood in 1930, determined to make it in the movies. They both did. They worked throughout the Great Depression, and then for another three decades. They set their sights very high: Hollywood. Then they set their sites fairly low: second-tier character acting. First-tier character actors have included people like Thelma Ritter (a scene-stealer of enormous skill), Gig Young, Wilford Brimley, and other actors with name identification. The big stars came and went, as did their marriages. So did first-tier character actors. The Foulgers lasted.
GETTING NO CREDIT
The mark of their careers can be seen in the IMDB's repeated classification: (uncredited).
My letter files are still in Mississippi, so I go by memory here. Otherwise. I could verify this more explicitly. Sometime around 1967 or 1968, I wrote Foulger a fan letter. In those days, you could mail a letter to the Screen Actors Guild, and it would be forwarded. I told him how much I appreciated his career. I mentioned that my first memory of him was in a western with Don "Red" Barry. I checked this on IMDB this week. Maybe it was The Dalton Gang (1949), a low-budget Lippert film — there was no other kind — that I saw on a Saturday morning for free at the YMCA in 1952. Or maybe it was Red Desert, also released in 1949.
He sent a letter back. He thanked me. He said that this was the first time in his career that anyone had sent him a fan letter.
His letter has been in the back of my mind for over four decades. Here was a highly skilled craftsman who succeeded in earning a good living in what has to be the most competitive open-entry industry in the country: no formal certification required. The number of people trying to break into Hollywood is high. Of those who do — few — the number who survive is small. The number who survive for four decades is minuscule.
Those who do are generally the uncredited.
Because of union pressure beginning a generation ago, which followed the tradition of British films actors' credits, everyone is listed at the end of a film. The list goes on for many minutes. There may be outtakes in comedy films to keep you watching. Pixar movies are really good on this — fake outtakes. Mel Brooks may stick in a final goodie. Film credit junkies like me wait for something to match Matthew Broderick's post-credits scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But these rolling credits might as well be uncredited for all the good it does a struggling actor in search of name recognition.
The price of survival in almost any field is the willingness to spend your entire career in the shadows — literally, in the case of movie actors. No one famous ever tells you that you're great. No fan letters arrive.
In the case of Foulger, I can guess what it was like. A lifetime spent with strangers staring at you, looking confused, and wandering off. Or maybe one of them said, "I've seen you before. Who are you?" If he answered "Byron Foulger," this would not have helped the confused stranger. I can imagine the following. "I'm in the movies. You may have seen me. I played a hotel clerk."
"Really? Which movie?"
"I forget. About 40 of them."
The all-time master of this career path was Charles Lane. I know; this name doesn't ring a bell. He finally got his due. On his 100th birthday, in 2005, he was honored by a group of Hollywood actors. There is a 3-minute video of this event. It offers clips of a tiny handful of his films. The person introducing him is Haley Joel Osment. In the year Mr. Osment was born, 1988, Charles Lane had been in front of the camera for 57 years. Lane's farewell words are what I intend to say at my 100th birthday party, assuming my memory is still functional.
One of my favorite uncredited actresses was Ellen Corby. I started noticing her around 1954. She "starred" in super low-budget 30-minute non-series TV films that were shown mainly on afternoon TV. (So did Dorothy Adams and Byron Foulger.) These films put food on the table. By then, she had been in Hollywood for over two decades. She can be seen trying to get her money out of the Bedford Falls Building & Loan. She had been in front of the camera for 13 years by then. She finally made it to a major role as Grandma Walton in the mid-1970's. There, she won three Emmys and two Golden Globes. They kept her on the show even after she had a stroke, which was fitting. Until the Waltons, she had remained an unknown, despite an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress in 1949.
She stuck to her knitting.
STICK TO YOUR KNITTING
The willingness of a person to match his skills with consumer demand is a core survival skill. It is best if the targeted consumers have discretionary income. If they don't, then you had better produce non-discretionary services or goods.
Uncredited actors have exceptional skills that few people possess. There is a large demand for TV shows. If a person can break in, he has a possibility of a lifetime career. But the odds are against him. The competition is too stiff. Customer loyalty is low. Stars must sell themselves. Character actors must sell their typecasts. The sales are indirect, by way of agents, casting companies, and directors.
You may be in a similar situation in your career. If you cannot gain income directly from consumers, then you must find ways of persuading corporate intermediaries to select you. This requires an understanding of sales. You must identify what your supreme benefit is in the thinking of the intermediaries who can make you or break you.
The skill of showing up ten minutes early every time is a major skill. Whatever you can do to relieve fear of no-show in an intermediary is worth focusing on.
The reliability factor is more important in the mid-term than the high-end performance factor. A high-end performer will move up. The employer probably knows this. He hopes to keep the person for a time, but knows this is futile. When a character actor turns into Robert Duvall, a producer can't afford him.
Steady performance gets you steady business. This gives you time to develop your skills. In Duvall's case, the genius was always there. His enormous versatility made it clear very early that he would not remain a character actor. I remembered Duvall's role as a cabby in Bullett (1968) four years after I had seen the film. Few actors possess this kind on presence on-screen.
It is steady performance on the job that opens the door to the next career move upward. Find that unique service early and just keep plugging away at it. Use the Web to demonstrate your commitment. Post on a blog. Post videos. These need not be great. They need only be competent and useful to site visitors.
Steady performance in the shadows allows you an opportunity to develop your skills. You will get no respect, just as Rodney Dangerfield said. He surely got no respect as Jack Roy, let alone Jacob Cohen. He quit doing comedy to sell aluminum siding. "At the time I quit show business, I was the only one who knew I had quit." But he came back to perform in the evenings in the early 1960's, doing stand-up comedy. He was there when Ed Sullivan needed a replacement for an act that didn't show. That made him an overnight sensation. He had stuck to his knitting.
SPECIALIZATION OF PRODUCTION
A character actor need not be versatile. In most cases, versatility will be a liability. These people are not known in the industry for their acting ability. They are known for their typecasting. I doubt that any director ever asked for Byron Foulger. They all asked for a hotel clerk. Or maybe they asked for a sleazy little man to play a crooked accountant. In either case, Byron Foulger would have been on the short list.
The person in charge of central casting would have delegated the search to a character actor specialist, who looked through his files. Without digital files, these must have been files of character types, collated with files of character actors.
To survive as a character actor, you need some basic skills. Memorization. Calm in front of a camera. The ability not to be awed by movie stars. (I suspect this was easily learned.) The willingness to take direction. The ability to shoot a scene ten times because the star is drunk. The ability to keep your mouth shut off the set. And this crucial skill: the willingness to work without a salary, at least after the studio system broke down because of government intervention.
This raises the issue of entrepreneurship. A successful character actor has to move out of the realm of guaranteed income. A salary is a kind of bondage.
This applies to most people. Either you are way more productive than you think, and your employer pockets the difference between what you produce (large) and what you are paid (what average Joes are paid), or you are skating on thin career ice — you are in fact overpaid, and you pray that your boss doesn't figure out how overpaid you are.
The price of success on the scale of Byron Foulger is to be willing to bear a lot of uncertainty. The phone may not ring for months. You must live on savings. You must be ready to accept any call. So, you cannot earn a second full-time income. You must live on part-time earnings. None of this is easy. Most people refuse to do it. This fact opens up doors.
There are two movie careers that impressed me greatly. Jack Elam — the man with the walled left eye and the incredible eyebrows — had been an accountant for Samuel Goldwyn. He thought he could make it as a character actor. He did. He had to give up accounting. The other is Wilford Brimley. He used to shoe horses in westerns. He was a blacksmith. He then did stunt work. Finally he broke into speaking parts. He is the master curmudgeonly old guy. No more blacksmithing.
When a person is convinced that he can better serve consumers by doing something new, he has to forfeit time, money, or both. He has got to squeeze out time so that he can test the new market. This is what Dangerfield did. If you can work nights or on the weekend for one day, you can see if you can perform well enough to be asked back.
The willingness to do a good job for an entire lifetime and never get any credit is the foundation of success. Something better may open up. Or it may not. The point is, the free market provides everyone with the opportunity to match his skills with consumer demand . . . at some price. There is no right to work in a free society, but there is a right to bid.
Your task is to match your skills with the highest bidders. The best way to do this is to stick to your knitting. To do this, you must take a chance that you will remain uncredited for an entire career. This is the price of becoming a star.
Gig Young died a suicide, after murdering his fifth wife. Other suicides include "Red" Barry, George Sanders, George "Superman" Reeves, Nick "The Rebel" Adams, and others who had once been Hollywood celebrities. These people did not respect the consumer-satisfying gifts they possessed. They did not want to live the life of Byron Foulger and his wife. They did not understand success. They wanted credit. They should have settled for opportunities to serve.
February 11, 2009
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