Monday, January 26, 2009

The Agony & the Ex-Soap Star

Originally posted on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 .

Okay, so since I'm doing a tour and talking about Family Acts right now, I've been thinking a lot about show business. Because I really did channel so much of my show biz life when I wrote it. Not directly, I didn't actually experience most of the stuff -- well, okay, the Emmy sequence is pretty accurate – but I think my love for that world fueled the book. I'm still stage struck after all this time— actually, I'm probably more stage struck now than I was when I was actually working in the industry. I mean, these days no one is refusing to hire me because my ankles aren't right and I remind them of their mother, so I can afford to be a little misty eyed about it all.

That said, there are stories I always planned on telling when I became a huge star and was writing my autobiography. Since the huge star boat seems to have sailed without me—here goes. This first one is sort of about appendicitis, but it's really about actor ego. I have one. Well, of course I do, I wouldn't have done what I've done for a living if I didn't have one. I mean, the whole point of the profession is, people are supposed to watch you. Even if you're shy, somewhere deep down in your soul there's got to be a part of you that doesn't mind being looked at. And if there isn't and you still insist on acting, get yourself to a shrink today because you are a substance abuse problem waiting to happen.

And this brings me to something that puzzles me-- stars who moan about the pain… the brutal agony of being hounded by the media. This would be the same media they courted so hard on their way up that they made Paris Hilton look like an Amish spinster –right? I'm not sure you get to turn off the attention after you've made it . I mean, doesn't it kind of come with the dinner? But I digress.

I will admit I have a healthy… okay, an unhealthy actor's ego. I try to keep it under control because the cliché of the plumy voiced actor who thinks it's All About Me is a little too funny. I mean, even I don't want to get laughs that way. But it's rough, because the self absorption just sneaks up on you and before you know it, you've been monologue-- ing for twenty minutes and the people around you look the way my husband looks when I insist on listening to Wagner while we're driving to Alabama. So I probably manage to keep the monster under wraps about fifty per cent of the time.

Cut to: The early eighties when I was appearing on Ryan's Hope. I had a full day of scenes and I knew I was feeling badly, but I figured I'd just ride out the pain in my stomach until it went away. By ten that night it finally dawned on me that it wasn't going away and in fact it was getting worse. I knew I should do something. But I didn't have a doctor in New York – after all, I'd only lived in the city for twelve years. My friend Nancy said I should go to the emergency room, and since I really wanted whatever was bothering me to stop because I had to work three days that week, I finally went.

Okay, now here is Louise Shaffer's Rule 1 in case you ever find yourself in an emergency room in New York City after eleven o'clock at night. DO NOT CRACK JOKES. Are we clear on that? Because what you want more than anything else is for the overworked, exhausted staff to take you seriously. Look at it from their point of view, they have six gunshot wounds, two drug overdoses, a knife wound, and you, all sitting in the waiting room. Not only are you the only one who isn't vomiting or bleeding on the floor, you've obviously had the means to bathe in the past three weeks. They do not want to think there is anything wrong with you—they do not want think anything is wrong with anyone because they do not want to do the paperwork – but with you it's touch and go. And then you start doing your standup for them. Wrong. But I didn't know that. When I'm scared I try to be funny. And unfortunately for me, the triage nurse was an easy laugher. So she became An Audience. And to make matters worse, I chose to riff on my tendency toward hypochondria.

Here is Louise Shaffer's Rule 2 for New York City Emergency Rooms. When speaking to health care professionals do not use the words "I am a hypochondriac." They will not understand that you are indulging in charming, self-deprecating humor. They will assume that you are yet another whack job and they will not want to do the paperwork. The nurse sent me home with a giggle and told me I probably had a touch of Korean Flu -- since that was the nation that was exporting germs to us that year. She did not check my white cell count or my temperature.

At about one in the morning, I stopped trying to walk to the bathroom and decided to crawl. At five in the morning, I was carrying on a conversation with a man in a brown robe who seemed to have taken up residence in my ceiling. When my friend Nancy called me at eight to see how I was, I told her about the guy in brown and she called her doctor who said it sounded like I was hallucinating and that I should come right over to see him. When she arrived at my apartment to execute this plan, I refused to go because I couldn't afford to be sick. I said I had to work the next day. Nancy finally threatened to call the cops to break down my door before I agreed.

I had a temperature of 104. My white cell count was astronomical. My appendix had burst and they were going to send me to the hospital. I said no I didn't have time for that because I had to work the next day. Nancy made some more cop threats and I hurt too much to fight. I went to the hospital. I was chatting a lot with the guy in brown by then. They stuck me on a gurney, they were going to take me to surgery. Through the mists, it registered. "I can't go to work tomorrow?" I croaked. Everyone but Nancy thought I was being funny. "I need to make a phone call, " I said. (This was before we all had cell phones)

"She probably wants her family to know what's happened," a sympathetic nurse said and got a dial tone for me, "Now who do you want us to call, dear?"

"My agent," I said.

I informed my agent that I was going to be AWOL for the next two weeks. He tried to reassure me, he told me he would alert the show and they would find a replacement for me. I told him that was what I was calling about. Then -- and I am so not proud of this next part -- I gave him a list of all the actresses who had beaten me out for jobs for the last ten years. And believe me, even with heavy duty peritonitis, I remembered every name. Before I consented to go into surgery I made my agent swear that he would see to it that none of those actresses would play my part.

That's what I mean by an actor's ego. You be the judge of the healthy part.

1 comment:

  1. Louise,
    Was this when some redheaded gal filled in for you a few days? So enjoying you on Ryan's Hope, will be so sad when Soapnet goes dark and all we'll be left with are scratchy clips on YouTube.