by Liam Hogan
Like everyone else, I moved to LA to be discovered and, like nearly everyone else, I left unnoticed and sorely disenchanted a couple of years later. Being English-born, I came from further away than most – the mixed blessing of a dual nationality passport.
Truth be told, I didn’t much mind what I made it big as, just as long as I made it. I touted my headshots round a few modeling agencies that never got back to me. I wrote some poems I wisely kept to myself. One screenplay so awful that, in a fit of caffeine-fueled despair, I crumpled it into my waste paper basket and applied a match, setting off the building’s fire alarms and getting me evicted to boot. But acting always seemed the most plausible route to fame and fortune: I was in Hollywood, after all.
I worked hard to develop a passable American accent that only served to confuse casting directors into thinking I was a Canuck. I had a few auditions, did a little work as an extra, even had a couple of lines: “Not on this side of the street,” and “Yeah?” in a pilot for a police procedural that never got optioned. All of which came nowhere close to paying for acting classes, never mind the basic costs of living in La-La-Land; the food, the rent, the steady supply of whisky and beer to dull the disappointment of call-ups that never materialised.
So, like all the other wannabes, instead of being rich and famous, I ended up working for them. LA thrives on a constant influx of the hopeful, willing to work for peanuts for the sniff of a chance to be famous. The stronger the sniff, the less we were willing to work for and the longer we’d take it.
I got a job as a gardener for Antony Harlan. You won’t have heard of him, he was a money man. The guy who links the producers to the necessary funds for their films. Though never, it seemed, his own cash. No fool then, our Mr Harlan.
You might think the money comes from the studios, but try pitching an idea to MGM and asking for twenty million up front without having secured any of your own financing and see how far they bounce you down the street.
Most of my fellow thespians wanted jobs working for producers or directors. Some even tried to latch onto already-made-it actors. Which was dumb, because I can’t think of anyone less likely to help. It’s called ‘competition’. I was smarter than that. I knew Hollywood came calling on Tony Harlan.
Problem was, they came calling at his office just off Sunset Boulevard. Hardly anyone came out to his immaculately presented residence-with-a-view up on Mulholland and I barely saw the man himself more than a half-dozen times. We were the unseen underbelly, the vital but unregarded labor on which Hollywood stayed afloat. Necessary, but oh so expendable.
The only words Mr. Harlan ever spoke to me were from the back of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac. A plump, manicured hand, expensive wristwatch glittering in the hazy sun, waved me over. I peered into the tinted interior and saw the suited figure resplendent against the white leather upholstery. The words he spoke were: “Get that bloody wheelbarrow out of the way you Limey idiot!”
There might have been a couple more words as the window slid smoothly up, but thankfully I didn’t get to hear them. I doubt they were complimentary.
I got my marching orders half an hour later.
I may have been guilty of misleading you into thinking that this is my story. It’s not. But now that I’ve got all the background stuff out of the way, I can tell you about the brush with fame I had, three months before barrow-gate.
I wasn’t the only gardener on the Harlan estate. The hero, or villain, of my piece is one Gregory Santos. You won’t have heard of him either, but you should have, the damned fool. Not sure where the ‘Santos’ came from. Six foot two with a chiseled chin and eyes of blue, he had a rich baritone and a bronzed muscular frame that made everything he did look effortless.
In other words, prime leading man material, god rot his soul.
Naturally, I grilled him on my arrival. But Greg, it seemed, was the only white American male between the ages of 25 and 35 living within sight of the Hollywood sign who didn’t claim to be an actor. Astonishingly, Greg had come out to LA from his hometown somewhere deep in Ohio, to actually be a gardener. He even had a year at some Hicksville horticultural college, which was good, because I didn’t have a clue which end of a plant was which.
Still. You’d have thought some of the tinseltown magic would rub off, wouldn’t you?
I was cleaning out deadwood and leaves from the rhododendrons, while Greg pruned the more delicate hydrangeas across the way, when I was aware of a shadow moving on the lawn. I’d known Mr. Harlan was in residence, knew also he had guests, but as I looked up I saw a bear of a man: dark hair, dark beard, a crazily intense stare beneath hovering-raptor eyebrows, his jacket flapping as he approached at speed. I straightened up, my heart pounding, recognizing him instantly. This was why I’d gotten a shitty low-paid job out in the Hollywood hills, for the once in a lifetime chance to meet and impress one of the genuine greats: director, producer, legend, Stanley Kubrick. Dr. Strangelove was the first movie I ever saw at the cinema and I must have seen Spartacus a dozen times or more. The world was still reeling from the aftershocks of A Clockwork Orange, and everyone was wondering what he would do next.
I held out my hand, horribly aware of how damp and dirty it was, as Kubrick marched up and past to where Greg was snipping away.
The buffoon carried on, not paying any attention to the auteur peering at him from every angle. Finally, Greg lowered his secateurs, turned to Mr. Kubrick, and asked, polite as you like: “Can I help you?”
Kubrick tapped a fingernail to a tooth. “Maybe I can help you, son,” he said. “Which school are you in?”
Greg smiled. “I left school five years back. Got my diploma and all.”
A bead of sweat trickled down Kubrick’s whiskered cheek. “Not school school,” he said. “Acting school.”
“Oh, I’m not an actor,” Greg said. “I’m a gardener.”
Kubrick’s lip twitched, as if he’d been about to smile, but something had short circuited the action. “Really? You’ve never done any acting at all?”
He stroked his grizzled chin thoughtfully. “Well, would you like to? Give it a go, at least? I can offer you a job.”
The country bumpkin shrugged and gestured towards the landscaped gardens. “Thanks, but I already have a job.”
I had sudden visions of two thousand and one actors and actresses prostrate at Kubrick’s feet, me foremost amongst them, begging for half the opportunity he was offering Greg, all equally aghast as they watched him spurn it.
Kubrick swayed a little, unexpectedly rebuffed, before diving straight back in. “What about days off? You get days off, don’t you? Come down to the studios, take a look around. We’ll throw you in front of a camera, just for fun. I’ll send a car. Where do you live?”
Greg appeared to think on that for a moment, before he raised his secateurs once again and delicately pruned a wayward branch. “That’s mighty kind, sir, but I don’t think it’s really my kind of thing.”
Kubrick stood there in shock as Greg turned his back on the Academy Award-winning genius, on a man at the peak of his career, on a man offering him everything I had ever dreamed of, a man who emitted a strangled: “If you’re quite sure…”, before spinning on his heel and, red-faced, marching away even faster than he’d arrived.
I called after him: “Mr Kubrick! Mr Kubrick!” but the great man didn’t even bother looking over his shoulder.
I didn’t speak to Greg much after that, except for gardening-related stuff. True, I hadn’t spoken to him much before either, but I couldn’t bring myself to discuss my life’s hopes and dreams with this hick, this simpleton, who never even knew who he’d turned down and even if he had, for whom it wouldn’t have mattered. Not one jot.
After I got canned, I worked in a grocer’s for a while, then I parked cars and, at the pinnacle of my Hollywood sojourn, I got a job as a part-time receptionist at a small-time talent agency. I thought it would help further my career; it ended it. To see all those fresh, young faces, most with far more potential than I would ever have, being slowly churned into dust was more than I could take. Though maybe they were just the nails in a coffin already hewn that day up on Mulholland.
That was the last job I had in LA before taking the greyhound cross country to New York and enrolling in a creative writing course. Which is a whole different and equally traumatic story of abject failure. I never set foot on stage or applied for an audition again.
I don’t miss it much.
But I do sometimes wonder whatever happened to Kubrick’s rube.