It was my first job out of college. The company was known for making celebrity television specials. My duties were typical for a show business newbie. I brewed coffee, photocopied scripts, sent faxes, picked up dry cleaning and did whatever anyone asked without complaint.
My boss was a producer named Dennis Goldstein. He was a bloated brute with greasy gray hair and glasses that made his eyes bulge. When he spoke, spittle shot out of the side of his mouth like a broken beer tap. The receptionist Tammy told me his bark was worse than his bite. Maybe, but his bark was brutal.
Goldstein despised me the moment I walked in the door. His first words were, “Hey fuckface, get me a cappuccino.” I laughed, thinking he was joking. Big mistake.
“What are you laughing at, you imbecile? And where’d you get that fucking schnozz? I thought Jimmy Durante was dead and buried. Get me a cappuccino you dumbass prick.”
I staggered out of his office as if I’d been punched in the stomach.
“Don’t let him get to you,” Tammy advised. Too late.
I drove into Beverly Hills in search of a coffee house. Those were the days before Starbucks so I settled on an Italian restaurant on Canon Drive. I ordered a $6 cappuccino and hurried back to the office. Goldstein was waiting.
“What took you so long, Durante?” I forced a smile andgave him the drink. He took a sip and spit it on the floor. “This is ice fucking cold, you prick. Get me another one.”My legs quivered. I stood frozen in place, terrified.
“Get your dick out of your hand and move it you cretin.”
“Yes, sir,” I whispered.
Goldstein laughed. I wanted to cry. I’d heard rumors about Hollywood barbarians but I assumed they were like Big Foot sightings, few and far between. Now I’d encountered an actual Yeti in person.
I returned to the same restaurant and ordered another cappuccino. “Extra hot,” I urged the proprietor. He noticed I was trembling and asked if I wanted water. I said no. He gave me a shot of espresso.
I leaned against the bar and replayed the morning scene in my head. Was this a test? A Hollywood hazing ritual? Just a few hours earlier I was excited about my new job. Now I was ready to quit.
The espresso jolted me to life. I returned to the office. The conference room door was closed for the morning meeting. I urged Tammy to deliver the coffee to Goldstein while it was still hot. “He doesn’t care about the coffee,” she said.“He just wants to see you sweat.”
I bowed my head in shame and sat in the reception area awaiting my next flogging. Scott, the accountant, appeared. He gave me a script to be delivered to Dom DeLuise’s home in Malibu.
“Really,” I asked.
“Yes, really,” he said. “You have a problem with that?”
“No, it’s just… I love Dom DeLuise.”
“You’re not going for his autograph. Just give him the script.”
Tammy gave me directions and next thing I know I was driving my Toyota Corolla on Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu Estates. It was a gorgeous summer day and the beaches were packed. I marveled at the bright sun glinting off the greenish-blue waves. I’d taken this drive many times but I’d never been paid for the privilege. Suddenly the job didn’t seem so bad.
DeLuise was fantastic. He served me lemonade and fresh strawberries and insisted I sit with him on the beach front patio while he read the script. He asked about my goals in the business. I told him I wanted to write screenplays. “Good for you,” he said. He told me about his dream project, the Fatty Arbuckle story, and how the studios thought it was too depressing. He sent me on my way with a jar of lemonade and a renewed spirit.
I drove back to Beverly Hills in a state of reverie. The moment I stepped into the office I heard Goldstein’s roar.
“Durante! Get your ass in here.”
I leapt toward him like a trained poodle.
“Where’s my lunch,” he demanded.
“I’m sorry sir, I was delivering a…”
“…I don’t care if you were sucking Gandhi’s dick. I want lunch on my desk in 20 minutes.”
“Yes sir. What would you like?” He rubbed his gut and pursed his lips as if prepping to kiss a sex doll. “Get me a Cobb salad with extra bacon, blue cheese dressing and a side of fries.”
“Say it back to me.”
“Cobb salad, bacon, fries, blue cheese dressing.”
“And a fucking root beer.”
“Anything else, sir.”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you like anything else to eat?”
“What are you trying to say?”
A bead of sweat appeared on my upper lip.
“Spit it out. You calling me a fat fucking pig?”
“No sir. I didn’t say that.”
“It sure sounds like it.”
“I promise, I would never…”
“…Get my food, you fuck.”
Tammy took lunch orders for the rest of the staff then asked about Goldstein’s order.
“What do you mean uh-oh,” I asked.
“That man is allergic to lettuce. He’s going to send you right back out for something else the moment you return.”
“What do I do?”
“I’ll order him a Bronx Special at Nate N’ Al’s. That’s his favorite.”
“And the salad?”
“Get that too. Whatever he doesn’t eat, that will be your lunch.”
So it went for the next few weeks. Goldstein treated me like a galley slave and Tammy helped me mitigate his bully tactics. For the record, he refused the salad and devoured the Bronx Special. I quickly grasped the Darwinian underpinnings of show business. It’s not the strong that survive, but the most adaptable. I needed to stay one step ahead of Goldstein’s cravings to neutralize his cruelty. This required creative thinking. I made a deal with the dentist on the second floor to bring him coffee beans in exchange for access to his espresso machine. This meant fresh cappuccino the moment Goldstein walked in the office. It also meant one less hour of abuse per day, a small victory in my savage world.
The company was in pre-production for a television special starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. Rehearsals took place at a ballet studio in Westwood. I was assigned to craft service duty. My task was to buy food and drinks for the dancers and an ample supply of cigarettes for Baryshnikov. The job was a breeze. More importantly, it kept me away from Goldstein.
As I sat through rehearsals, I couldn’t take my eyes off Baryshnikov. He was intense and emanated an air of gravitas. The other dancers were also spellbound, mesmerized by his grace and movement. I yearned for another Dom DeLuise moment. Not that I was a modern dance fan, but I wanted to know what made Baryshnikov tick. Did he toss out wisdom borne from generations of Slavic suffering? Or was he a regular guy who liked fart jokes?
I pondered something to say to get his attention. Maybe I could ask him if he knew of any good borscht restaurants in town. Or I could ask him to explain that raspberry stain on Gorbachev’s head. Or ask whatever happened to Olga Korbut.
I waited for him to take a cigarette break in the alley. He stepped out the back door and leaned against an ivy-covered fence. I decided I’d ask him who was the better dancer, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? I took a deep breath and moved toward him. A stocky man garbed in black stepped into my path and pressed a hand into my chest.
“No one talks to Misha,” he said with a Russian accent.
“I work for the show,” I said. “I want to see if Mr. Baryshnikov wants something to eat.”
“That’s my job. Go sit down and watch the pretty girls.”The man was intimidating with sunglasses and a thick leather jacket. He had the vibe of a mobster or a strip club bouncer. I sheepishly returned to my place at the craft service table.
Rehearsals resumed and I dove back into the book I was reading, Dreams From Bunker Hill by John Fante. A gruff voice interrupted me.
“Sorry, my friend. You cannot be too careful. I am Viktor. I am Misha’s driver.”
The man in the leather jacket extended a beefy hand. We shook.
“Are you his bodyguard too?”
Viktor looked to be in his 50s with a bushy beard and deep-set eyes. His gravelly voice made him sound like an angry frog. He told me he defected to America in 1981. He said he was a surgeon back in Moscow. I didn’t believe him.
“What kind of surgeon?”
“Brain surgery, of course.”
“Why did you leave Russia?”
“How much you make for your bubble gum stand,” he asked.
“It’s not a bubble gum stand. It’s a craft service table. And I’m a production assistant.”
“I earn about a hundred dollars a day,” I said.
“That’s twice what I make in Moscow as doctor. They give me apartment, food, vodka. I want freedom.”
“Why don’t you practice surgery in America?”
“Russian medical degree is worthless.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“It’s not so bad. I drive Misha, date American woman, live in sunshine. I’m lucky.”
“And if one of the dancers crack open their head you cancome to the rescue.”
“And if one needs bubble gum you too can be hero.” He laughed loudly, patting me on the back. He pulled out a steel flask from his coat pocket and took a deep swig. “To comrade Smirnov,” he said. He offered me the flask. I took a small sip and started coughing.
The company relocated to KCET Studios in Los Feliz for production. The studio dated back to silent film days. You could sense cinema history with the faded brick buildings and oddly placed iron bars over non-existent windows. Our sound stage was where the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed in 1955. Being a movie nerd, this brought me great pleasure.
I was classified as non-union crew. This meant I wasn't allowed to touch or move anything on set. My job was to wait around until someone tasked me with an errand. Viktor waited with me. We’d taken a shine to each other. He munched M&M’s and commented on the non-stop flow of celebrities. They included Shirley MacLaine, Gregory Hines, Daryl Hannah and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Everyone fawned over Baryshnikov.
Viktor wanted to know why Americans idolized celebrities.
“I guess it’s because our lives are boring. Being around famous people makes us feel special.”
“Pathetic,” he said.
“Don’t people admire movie stars in Russia?”
“There are no movie stars in Russia. It’s not Communist way.”
“How about Baryshnikov? He’s a legend.”
“He is defector. If he went back, they’d throw him in prison.”
“And if you went back?”
“You miss Russia?”
“Let me quote my favorite poet Joseph Brodsky. In Russia life is not battle between bad and good but bad and worse.”
“That sounds awful,” I said.
“Yes. I miss it terribly.”
Film and television sets have a definite pecking order. As a production assistant, I languished at the bottom along with the craft service guy and the man who delivered Andy Gump toilets. It was acceptable for me to fraternize with grips and electricians and set painters and extras. But other crew members were off limits. I wasn’t to engage the producer, director, actors, cinematographer, camera operator, production designer, script supervisor or sound engineer. They all traveled in first class while I was stuck in coach.
This isn’t to say my job was unimportant. Someone has to do the dirty work and if a star wants a double cheeseburgerfrom In-N-Out, you sure aren’t going to send a $50/hour Teamster driver. Many filmmakers begin their career as a production assistant. The job is demeaning, pays poorly and has zero prestige. But it gets you on the playing field and teaches you the rules of proper set behavior.
At the end of the first week, Scott the accountant came to set with paychecks. He asked me to help him distribute the envelopes and get signatures from the crew. He handled the above the line folks while I handled the grunts. At one point, one of the grips laughed too loud and ruined a take. The soundman yelled at me even though I hadn’t said a word. Egalitarianism doesn’t exist on film sets.
After the wrap, Scott invited me for beers at El Chavo, a Mexican restaurant around the corner. He was quiet, worked hard and resembled a surfer with dirty blond hair and soft blue eyes. I could tell he felt sorry for me. He asked if I was enjoying the job.
“I like being on the set. But the office, how can I explain it…”
“Yeah. He kind of scares me.”
“He scares everybody,” Scott said. “You know what he calls me?”
“Libby. Short for Liberace. Because I’m gay.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “Have you told him to stop?”
“You don’t wave a red flag in a bull’s face. I knew at some point he’d find someone else to pick on.”
Scott told me about his journey to Hollywood. He studied economics at Arizona State and planned to be an insurance actuary. During senior year he had a roommate from Orange County named Gina. She moved back to California and married Dan Moser, the director of the Baryshnikov special. Moser started his own company and Gina recommended Scott as accountant.
“Hollywood seemed a lot more exciting than the insurance business. And Tempe is not what you’d call gay-friendly.I’ve been working with Dan for 15 years now.”
“Dan seems like a great guy,” I said. “Why does he work with someone like Goldstein?”
“I asked Gina that question,” Scott said.
“Everybody needs a professional asshole or the networks will chew you up. Dan loves television but he hates dealing with the studios. Goldstein is Dan’s ogre.”
“Is the whole industry that way,” I asked.
“Everybody in show business has fleas,” Scott said.
“It’s better to find out now while you’re still young.”
After our beers, we walked to the parking lot in back. Scott still had to drop time sheets at the office since Goldstein worked on Saturdays. I offered to do it for him since it was on my way home.
“Just slide the folder under his door,” Scott said.
I drove west on Sunset Boulevard stopping at Zankou Chicken for a shawarm. I continued south on Gower past Paramount Studios. I’d been playing a little game with myself, recording my time as I drove from the studio to the office each day. My record was 22 minutes.
I drove west on Wilshire Boulevard and turned left on Camden Drive. As I pulled into the office parking lot, I looked at my watch. Nineteen minutes. I took the elevator to the third floor. When I entered the suite, the lights were still on. It must be the cleaning crew, I guessed.
“Hello,” I called out. No one answered.
I checked each office door. All were locked except for the large room at the end of the hall. Goldstein’s office. His door was ajar and light spilled into the hallway. I panicked. I’d mentally checked out for the weekend and wasn’t ready for a wrestling match.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again.
“Mr. Goldstein. Are you there?”
I pushed the door open. The office was empty. His blue windbreaker was draped over the chair and a half-eaten pastrami sandwich sat on the desk. I felt a sense of danger, like an antelope at the edge of a crocodile filled river. If he walked in at this moment he could attack me and no one would hear a thing.
I stepped toward the desk and placed the time sheets next to the sandwich. That’s when I noticed the family photo. It was a picture of Goldstein with his wife and young son at a Dodgers game. He had an arm around his wife’s waist and his hand atop the boy’s head. They were smiling like a typical American family.
I heard a cough followed by the sound of retching. Then I heard a beastly roar and the bellow of someone vomiting. The noise emanated from the hallway bathroom. I’ve always heard an animal is most dangerous when wounded. This was my moment to run. I tiptoed out of the office and down the hall. As I passed the bathroom, I heard a guttural “blarrrgghh.”
I hurried through the reception area and out the front doorto freedom. I pressed the elevator button. Thirty seconds and I’d be safe in my car driving home. Then it hit me. I can’t leave him. He’s a nasty wretched soul. But he’s a human being. And he’s in trouble. And I’m the only one around.
I walked back into the office and knocked on the bathroom door.
“Mr. Goldstein. Are you okay?”
I heard a grunt.
“Who is it,” he spit out.
“It’s me, sir. Durante.”
“Help me, Durante. Please.”
I pushed open the bathroom door. I was hit with an inhuman odor, like rotten fish mixed with old cabbage. Goldstein was in the handicapped stall, knees on the floor, head over the toilet. I could see the upper crevice of his hairy buttocks spilling out of his pants.
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Water,” he called out.
I ran to the kitchenette and filled a plastic cup with water. I returned to the bathroom and gave it to Goldstein. He took a sip and vomited again. I knew if I got too close I’d vomit as well. I wet a stack of paper towels and gave them to Goldstein. He wiped his mouth and face.
“Help me up,” he said. I placed my arms under his armpits and managed to get him to his feet. We shuffled out of the bathroom, his pants around his ankles. We made it to his office and he collapsed on the leather couch. I helped him pull up his pants up and buckle his belt.
“Thank you, son,” he said. Hearing him express gratitude was strange. It was like seeing a circus monkey riding a bike. It wasn’t natural.
“Can I get you something else, sir?”
“In my desk, lower right drawer.”
I opened the desk drawer and saw a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
“Yes,” he said. “Now go over there, behind the Emmy Award.”
He pointed to a cabinet next to a large screen television. Behind the award was a bottle of Absolut Vodka.
“This,” I asked.
“Yes. Mix it with the Pepto. And add some ice.”
“It’s a Pink Russian. It’s good.”
I walked to the kitchenette and filled a glass with ice cubes. I poured the Pepto over the ice and added a shot of vodka. I mixed it with a pencil. I brought the concoction to Goldstein. He closed his eyes and took a deep swig. The drink settled him. He stared at me in silence. It freaked me out.
“Uh, that’s a nice family photo,” I said.
“On your desk. Your son and your wife.”
“Ex-wife,” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” I said.
“That’s not my son. She didn’t want kids with me. She just wanted the house.”
“You want to know why I have a picture of my ex-wife and her son on my desk, don’t you?”
“No, that’s okay, really,” I said.
“Cause it makes me happy. Want to know why it makes me happy?”
I didn’t. I just wanted to get out of there. “Cause the kid is mentally retarded. That’s what she gets for leaving me for a genetic miscreant.” He took another sip of his drink. “Why are you here, Durante?”
“Do you mean literally or why do I exist on the planet?”
“Why are you in the office this late at night?”
“I brought the time sheets. I put them on your desk.”
“Ah, I see.” He took another sip. He squinted at me as if seeing me for the first time. “You know why I’m tough on you, right,” he asked.
“Uh, no sir, I don’t.”
“You seem like a good person. I want you to get out of this horrible fucked-up industry before it turns you into a piece of shit. You should be a psychiatrist or a teacher or a fireman, something good for the world. We don’t need any more show business assholes.”
“I appreciate the advice.”
“Are you going to quit?”
“Uh, I don’t know sir. Can I think about it?”
“Fuck you, you prick. Get out of here.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Get the fuck out of my office.” I began shaking like it was my first day on the job.
“Are you fucking deaf, you moron? Leave!”
I left the office, terrified and confused. I hurried past the elevator and down the stairwell into the parking lot. I jumped into my car, shaking uncontrollably. I screeched onto Camden Drive and sped through Beverly Hills. I rolled down the window and gulped the fresh air. It was a cold night. I pressed down on the accelerator and drove toward the fog-shrouded hills.