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Sam Raimi. Megan Fox. These are but a few of the Hollywood names I have a distant, tenuous, nearly imaginary, and at this point fairly pathetic connection to from my time as a child actor. Here’s another. If you are one of the millions who have been watching the critically acclaimed TV show Empire, you have probably noticed the suave Detective Calvin appear across several episodes.
If you are a more dedicated TV watcher, you might have caught The Divide last year, a crime drama set in Philadelphia starring the same striking individual in the lead role together with other terrific actors like Clarke Peters and Nia Long.
And if you’ve been quietly stalking Damon Gupton’s career for years now from halfway around the world (*cough, cough*), you may remember him as the monk Gyatso in Avatar: the Last Airbender.
But if somehow you haven’t heard of him yet, you really ought to [tooltip text=”or surreptitiously download the next day if outside the US” trigger=”hover”]turn on the television Thursday night on NBC[/tooltip] and check out The Player, a crime drama set in the Las Vegas casinos, starring Damon Gupton as Detective Cal Brown. I guess there is also some guy named Wesley Snipes in it.
With his prodigious talent, his obvious charisma, his dramatic gravitas, the only real question is why Hollywood took so long to start giving Damon his due. The answer could only be because he’s been putting an equal amount of talent and energy into a career as a classical music conductor – like, symphonies and stuff – leading orchestras all over the country!
I don’t mean to brag, but the fact is I performed onstage alongside Damon, and played music with him too. Sometimes at one and the same time. Below, I perform my rendition of “Toot-toodleoot-toodleoot-toodleoodleoot” on the recorder as Flavius Maximus, manservant to Damon Gupton’s Brutus in a rendition of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by the University of Detroit Jesuit Harlequins.
All joking aside, nobody who knew him then would be surprised at his success now. There are some people you meet who are clearly destined for great things. All the best, Damon. You’ve got a fan in Malaysia.
[dropcap background=”yes”]M[/dropcap]egan Fox and I share a tragic intertwined destiny. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Meghan Fox is the star of such movies as Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Our fates became tangled together years ago. I’ve told you how the Sam Raimi-directed Nintendo commercial was the biggest gig I ever took. It wasn’t the biggest gig I ever won.
Remember the movie Adventures in Babysitting? It was a big hit in the 1980s, launching the career of Elisabeth Shue. A high-minded affair, it involved two adolescents loose in Chicago with their babysitter, a spitting image of a Playboy centerfold. The boys know this because the 13-year-old sidekick has a copy of that month’s Playboy magazine, a major plot device. It was such a big hit that Disney decided to make a TV spin-off. As is customary, a pilot episode would be made first, and if it was well-received, the series would launch. Disney trawled the Midwest for “talent”, meaning actors, and I was called to audition for the part of Daryl, the sex-crazed sidekick.
Amazingly, I made the cut for the first audition in Detroit, and was called for a second round of auditions in Chicago. My father booked us a commuter flight out of City Airport, took a day off work, and off we flew. During the second audition, among the quality material I was asked to read were lines about approaching a girl in class because “she wears a bra, Brad, a big bra!” I was mortified to tell my father afterwards.
[dropcap background=”yes”]B[/dropcap]rothers and sisters, I got the job. There’s the proof in black & white: entrance to the House of Mouse. If you check the fine print though – no, not even the fine print but the big print – you’ll see it was no gold-plated offer. In fact it was pretty meager. A few grand for the pilot, and if successful, a 20K/year deal that would require the family to move to L.A. Dad would have to move his practice. Mom would have to chaperone me on set with my baby sister. I would have to leave school and get tutoring on set. The money wasn’t there, but the chance, the dream of a Hollywood career was.
It was a tough call. We had only a few days to decide. My agent begged us to take it, but my parents felt wiser counsel was in order. We consulted an Indian guru, a Jesuit harlequin, a Jewish pianist. None were willing to say it was a good idea. In the end, we turned it down. Having snubbed Disney and humiliated my agent, the phone never rang again.
Three and a half years later I converted to Islam. Ten years after that I moved to Malaysia.
[dropcap background=”yes”]A[/dropcap]ll’s well that ends well. But what about Disney? What about the show, which, they say, must go on? Deprived of the guy they wanted, they settled for the guy they could get. The pilot crashed, the series was never made, the end. Sorry, Disney.
The guy they got, though, managed to do all right for himself. In fact he won a Young Artist Award for his portrayal of Daryl. After Adventures in Babysitting, he landed a role on Beverly Hills 90210 that he held for 10 years. Brian Austin Green has since gone on to build a respectable career as a working actor, and in 2010, he married Megan Fox. By now, it should be clear for all to see exactly what I’m driving at, so I’ll get straight to the point. If I had taken that job, if I had moved to LA, if I was the one who was now a 6’-tall blue-eyed Hollywood hunk …
… Megan Fox would be a practising muslim in Jakarta.
I’ve boasted before about how Sam Raimi directed the nintendo commercial I was in, but it wasn’t the only time we were both involved in a production. He and I both starred in a movie! Well, I had one line. And he plays a villainous hippy in a bad wig. And it wasn’t much of a movie. Ladies and gentlemen, it was Stryker’s War. The plot: vietnam vet returns home to find girlfriend abducted by
crazy cultists, shoots the place up; warnings about the deadly nature of jarts go unheeded. It was a blood-bucket of a movie, in the very literal sense that they had buckets of blood, premixed on set in the morning, so they would have sufficient blood for all the scenes to be shot that day. It is the sort of movie you never expect to see the light of day. But one day I googled myself (come on, you know you’ve done it) and amazingly, I had an entry on the IMDB. When I first found it, the reviews of the film described it as the D-movie crap that it surely is. But as Sam Raimi’s star rose, so did the evaluation of the film: now you can find glowing reviews calling it a “camp masterpiece” with a healthy 3-star rating.
I still have my copy of the videocassette that my high-school buddy PA miraculously found at a store out in like Maine, where it had been released straight to video as “Thou Shalt Not Kill… unless violence demands revenge”. I doubt it’s playable anymore even if I still owned a VCR. But I can present to you here the key 1 minute of the film where I deliver my immortal line and some weighty foreshadowing re: jarts is introduced to the dramatic arc of the film:
Jarts, of course, being those big lawn darts, right? Well you know what they say: if there’s a gun above the mantle on the set, it must be fired before the end of the play. Lo, the same principle is true of jarts. Chekov’s Jarts, you might say.
For those with an exceptional tolerance for forgettable low-budget film-making, I present the full slideshow:
Now that the internet has arrived, nothing will ever disappear again. In fact, Stryker’s War is now available, in a Collector’s Edition release no less. Get yours today!
The small walfdorf-esque grade school I went to was heavily into drama. We used to do several plays a year with the whole class. Mostly they were mythological themes: the Norse saga, the Krishna story, the Gilgamesh epic.
I loved it. When our school principal’s daughter opened up an acting school in Royal Oak, I and a bunch of
my schoolmates signed up. That led to a few auditions and a couple of very minor local jobs, mostly commercials, a couple of which even paid dollars, sometimes tens of dollars. We decided to take that money and sink it into a professional “head shot”, a big glossy 8 x 10 photograph, which Mom could use to register me at the two or three talent agencies in Detroit. And so it came to pass that one day I was called to audition for the biggest gig of my career, a TV commercial for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Lo and behold, I got the job. And through the power of the internet, for the first time in over twenty years, I watched that commercial last night. Here it is:
This commercial was directed by none other than Detroit native Sam Raimi, at a pivotal time in his career. It was after Evil Dead II, but before he went to Hollywood and made Darkman, the best comic-book movie adaptation ever, except it wasn’t based on any existing comic-book. It launched the career of Liam Neeson and led the way to the neverending cascade of superhero movies, none of which beat Darkman in my opinion, including Raimi’s own Spider Man in 2002. Fast-forward to 2011 and Sam Raimi is now Hollywood royalty.
The other person in that commercial who went on to fame and legend was …
… Simon, the hero of the video game. Castlevania II, I am only just now learning, was an innovative videogame in the way it introduced role-playing and non-linear quests into the side-scrolling platform-type game, and heralded a stream of similar “metroidvania” games. Castlevania went on to become the single longest-running videogame title in history, and although Castlevania II was the weakest seller of the series, it is venerable enough now to be the subject of (semi-)serious study by scholarly videogame critics. If you are older than I am, you may be shocked to learn that there even exist scholars and serious students of videogames. But in fact Simon beat Sam in a way because the videogame industry is now larger and more profitable than the movie business.
As for me, well, that was it folks. That was as big as I got. I could have been the next Brad Pitt. Or maybe more of a John Turturro. Didn’t happen that way. Instead, as the residuals money trickled in, I wound up with an unsmall amount of discretionary funds for a 15-year-old. I could have saved it to pay for two or three months of university expenses. I could have squandered it on comic books and other habitual pursuits. Instead, my parents put me on an airplane to sunny Sri Lanka, then very much in the middle of its 30-year civil war. There I traveled on foot from Trincomalee to Kataragama and learned vital wearing-a-sarong and eating-rice-with-my-hands skills that serve me well to this day.
…Millionaire Magazine? No. No, I don’t. Not on its pages either. So imagine my surprise when I found a family photograph of mine had been stolen and used to promote a lame holiday-photo competition of a glossy, nationally-distributed for-profit magazine. A letter to the editor demanding proper attribution produced a bland apology and a request to overlook the mistake since the magazine existed only as an act of charity to “help the bumiputra”! And only Malaysians know how many mistakes they are expected to forgive with that excuse…
It’s frustrating. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky to share my life online for over eight years now without getting burned. Quite the opposite. This website has enabled me to meet wonderful people I never would have otherwise, to make serendipitous connections that would seem miraculous in the pre-internet world. And yet now having that boundary crossed… it really stings. My wife, who has a much more public-facing job than I do, was especially mortified. I’ve read a hundred times about the dangers of putting family information online, but I thought my site was too small or my intentions sincere or … I guess I just should have known better.
The upshot is Bin Gregory Productions will be less personal in the future. I’ve restricted most of my Flickr stream, I’ve started pulling out child names and such from my archives, and I’ll be much more careful and particular about family-related stories in the future. I can live with embarrassing myself, but embarrassing my family is a serious dereliction of duty.
So it looks like I won’t be making that trip home to Michigan that I thought I would this June, due to, how you say, irresolvable differences of contractual interpretation between myself and my employer. I’m tempted to give in to sentimentality here and list out all the things I really miss about home, but where would that get me? The places you dream about are also the places your nightmares come from, and so maybe I ought to reflect on that.
This is the Southfield-Jeffries Interchange, a monumental no-place that towers over the landscape, quite easily the tallest structure on the West Side. It has appeared in bad dreams more times than I can count. Details change, but most often, the interchange is completely filled with broken or unmoving cars and I find myself walking miserably up or down those tall arching, curving ramps. A meaningless series of dreams no doubt, and yet out of all the places and spaces I’ve inhabited around Detroit, it is that object that crops up most often in my imagination.
I’ve really been enjoying Google Earth, Google’s (not-so-anymore) new aerial imagery viewer. Like everybody else I’m sure, the first thing I did was find all the places I’ve lived. I’ve put a couple images here partly for my own nostalgia and partly to show off Google Earth. It really is amazing, better than having a globe on your desk.
The first set of pictures is from our neighborhood in New Delhi, India, where I lived for four years when I was very young. It was hard to find. I had to send several pictures back to my father and mother to comment on before I narrowed it down to what you see here.
The houses along our block were mostly three story flats, with common side walls, sort of like townhouses. That street was amazing. I remember people bringing camels and elephants that kids could ride for a fee, and trained dancing bears and snake charmers performing. The “elbow” in the street was wide enough for kids to play ball games like cricket. The roofs were cool too. We had the top flat with a huge open veranda, from where I could get onto the roof. Since it doesn’t rain much there, the roofs are all flat, and since the houses adjoin one another, it makes it easy to explore. My memory is spotty since we left India when I was not yet seven, but just finding these aerial photos was thrilling nonetheless. Definitely the next best thing to being there.
The second set of pictures is from our block in Detroit where I lived for about ten years. Finding the block on Google Earth was not as startling since I visited there not long before I left for Malaysia and took a number of photos. The aerial view is still neat though. I especially like how the freeway looks so clean and orderly from the sky. How deceptive.