(This week I am recycling some humor columns that I wrote for the Vermont Sunday Magazine in the 80s and 90s. I’m not sure why I thought I was a funny guy back then. SB SM)
MY CAREER IN SHOW BIZ (Hi, Jim!)
Every so often life imitates art in a delightful way that is impossible to anticipate.
I watch the evening news, not for the latest on world events, but for the pharmaceutical commercials. Specifically, I look for commercials about that little purple pill called Nexium. When it comes on, I wave at the television and say, “Hi, Jim!”
The Nexium ad is the one where they keep referring to “that little purple pill” while they show a humongous purple cylinder (must be a propane tank) that could choke a sperm whale. I can’t tell you what “Nexium” means, what it does, who makes it, or what scourge it cures. I do know that the little purple pills make you “better.” I know this because the spokesperson, right at the end, leaning on the purple propane tank, looks directly into the camera and says, “And better is better!”
The spokesperson for Nexium is James Naughton (“Jim” to me, “James” to the rest of you), and he’s a great actor. You can tell the by the way he makes eye contact with the camera, furrows his brow in a way that exudes credibility, and says “And better is better!” without cracking up. Not even a little smirk. That, Dear Reader, is the mark of a great one. I think he was the guy who said “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Jim exudes credibility.
Jim and I started our show biz careers together back in college. I was the head of a small undergraduate theater group. Jim was a graduate student in the drama school. Because there was an overall shortage of acting and directing venues, drama school students were desperate to pad their resumes with anything that smacked of experience. This actually put me in a position of some power. Here’s how powerful I was: I once turned down Henry Winkler, who went on to become a household word as Fonzie from Happy Days, for a directing position. Instead, I hired a guy named, to protect the innocent let’s call him Zocor, who proved so inept that to do something idiotic in our theater group became known as “to do a Zocor.”
Back to Jim. I had the good sense to cast him in a lead role in a play that became a big hit on campus. He had it all—good looks, could sing and dance, fun to be around, always came prepared. You could tell he was headed for great things. Graduation came and went, and we went our separate ways—Jim to Broadway and Hollywood and me to Haverhill, Massachusetts where I took a job selling ads for a second-rate boating magazine.
The rest is history.
Jim comes into my living room every few years in a new and unexpected way. He’s almost always a good guy, never a thug. Sometimes he’s a guest star on a series. He drew rave notices on Broadway for Chicago. He’s had several TV series of his own, none of them very memorable. For a while he was Ally McBeal’s father. He’s done a bunch of commercials.
His name is not a household word, but I bet you would recognize his face. He does some cool things on the Nexium commercial. In addition to furrowing his brow, at one point he materializes out of thin air. Try doing that at home. For a few seconds he just stands, looking bemused (but credibly bemused) while his voice-over continues. His lips don’t even move. You don’t often see such dazzling special effects in a drug commercial.
I’m sure that Jim is constantly wondering what has happened in my life. Our paths haven’t crossed, but they almost did … once. This was a dozen or so years ago. Jim was on some TV show or commercial that brought him into our living room with some frequency. At each appearance I would start the obligatory shouting “Wife! Kids! Hurry!”
Thinking an emergency, at least a heart attack, was in progress, they would come scrambling in, sometimes in time to actually see Jim on screen. I would then treat (subject?) them to the story of how Jim and I started in show biz together. Usually the story provoked only yawns and rolled eyebrows, but once my youngest son said “Oh yeah? Well, why doesn’t he have any grey hair?”
Hm-m-m. He raised a good point. While I had gone the way of all flesh, Jim looked just as he had when I knew him in college. I began not to like Jim. I began to resent Jim. I began to hate Jim’s guts. Now, when he appeared on screen, and one of the kids said, “Hey, isn’t that your friend?” I would just mumble and turn away.
As fate would have it, we made a trip a few months later that took us through Williamstown, Massachusetts. We passed by their summer theater and I noticed “James Naughton” on the marquee. Minutes later we were driving through Williamstown’s downtown, and one of the kids said:
“Hey, isn’t that your friend?”
It was Jim. There was no mistaking that erect posture, those fine features, the strong chin, and that thick shock of completely grey hair! Instantly, Jim was my friend again. I considered making a u-turn and stalking him, but decided not to inflict myself. Just as well, too. Of the various outcomes that could have transpired in a face-to-face meeting, most of them would have been deflating, especially in front of my kids. Stephen who? This way we could just move on with our travels, with me blustering that if I dyed my hair, I would look like I was still in college, too.
So, Jim, if you’re out there and wondering what happened to me. I’m ok. I’m living here in Beyonder, writing my articles and stoking the woodstove. So far, knock on wood, I don’t need those little purple pills, but you keep right on taking them. “And better is better,” don’t you know? I hope they paid you a small fortune to recite that line. Good to see ya.
(Postscript: on Christmas night I get a call from backstage at the Brooks-Atkinson Theater in New York City where they are preparing to go one with the show Democracy. The voice is deep, rich, and familiar. It’s Jim! Someone sent him the article. Hope he doesn’t sue.)