The Impossible Dream

"It’s one of the great ironies of theater that only one man in it can count on steady work -- the night watchman.”  -- Tallulah Bankhead

Stage and screen legend Tallulah Bankhead (search) spoke those words over 50 years ago, and not much has changed in the field of entertainment since then.

According to a report issued by the National Endowment of Arts (search), over 30 percent of actors were unemployed in 2002.

But according to the Screen Actors Guild, the union that represents actors, the numbers are even more sobering.

There are 118,000 SAG members. At any given time, 75 percent of those members are not working under SAG contracts, and when they are, between 70 and 75 percent earn under $10,000 annually. And get this: Just 2 percent of SAG's membership earns upwards of $500,000 a year. That includes the Tom Hankses and Julia Robertses of the world.

With numbers like those, it’s a wonder so many people find it incumbent upon themselves to pursue fame and fortune on the silver screen.

Which brings me to actor Jimmy Starace. You’ve probably never heard of him, but you’ve probably seen him in any number of television commercials, including the famous Life cereal (search) campaign in which he starred as the adult “Mikey.”

For the last 15 years, Starace has seen some modest success. He’s got close to 50 commercials under his belt, and he’s been featured in small parts on films and television shows.

“I acted with Tim Roth in a film called 'No Way Home,'” Mr. Starace said in an interview for this column. “My character starts a fight with Roth’s and I end up being kicked in the groin,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Starace also played a British pilot in a scene opposite Bette Midler in “For The Boys” (search) and was directed by Sidney Lumet on the cable program “100 Centre Street.”

But for all the time put in studying the craft of acting (he studied at the Stella Adler Academy in New York City and with noted teacher Herbert Berghof), and pounding the pavement in New York City and Los Angeles, the big opportunities have been elusive.

“I went on thousands of auditions and hundreds of cattle calls,” he said.  A “cattle call” is the term used by actors and agents that refer to an open call audition, where a casting director or movie producer advertises auditions in local papers and radio.

“Nothing major ever came of any of them,” he said. So why bother going, you ask?

“You wake up in the morning saying it won’t happen,” he said. “But in the slimmest part of the back of your mind you say, ‘you never know.'”

Jimmy has an agent for on-camera and voice over commercials at “super agent” Don Buchwald and Associates, the same firm that represents Howard Stern (search). He’s auditioned for some of the biggest casting directors in the commercials business, but on the “theatrical” side of the industry, where film and television roles are cast, he is little known.

“I need a theatrical agent who is willing to commit to me and get me out on auditions,” he said.

But therein lies the frustration felt by every actor in every part of the world -- can’t get a job without an agent, and for the most part, can’t get an agent without a job.

“The single most difficult thing you will do as an actor is try to get representation,” said Johnna Gottlieb, a former agent who now does consulting to actors and agents alike.

“Everyone wants an agent,” said Gottlieb, “and there's no shortage of talent who are looking for agents. Unfortunately there is a shortage of talent agents out there looking for talent,” she adds.

Executive producer Michael Tadross ("The Thomas Crowne Affair") (search), currently in pre-production on "The Last First Kiss," starring Will Smith, brings up another dichotomy.

"You usually don't get auditions for great roles unless you're in SAG (the Screen Actors Guild, a union that represents actors), and you can't get into SAG unless you have a role," he said.

Tadross recommends young actors get into a theater rep company and be seen. "It takes a lot of hustling, but it can be done. We give unknown actors shots in all our movies. And once they have a piece of tape, they can send it to an agent," he said.

But Gottlieb said having talent alone isn’t enough to get you representation.

“You have to be your own PR person and have business savvy,” she said, citing Tom Cruise (search) as an example of someone who never had a problem selling himself to agents and producers as someone who can make them money.

Speaking of Cruise, Starace said "The Last Samurai" (search) star has the most ideal acting career. “He does some action, some character driven roles -- he mixes it up,” he said.

Tom Cruise is the biggest, most influential actor in Hollywood, so of course his career is ideal.

But speaking to me on the red carpet at the premiere for "The Last Samurai" last week, Cruise said it still takes an extreme amount of focus and discipline, even at his level.

“I’ve always trusted my own instincts,” Cruise said.  “I have great people who work with me but I’m the one that has to go out there.  I listen but it all comes down to what I want to do as an actor,” he said.

Gottlieb concurs.

“The most successful people I have worked with in this business are people who are really focused,” she said.  “It’s not all about talent, everybody in this business is talented. It’s about networking.”

So what is Gottlieb’s advice to Jimmy?

“He should make a list of everybody he’s ever met in the business,” she said. “And he should ask for help. As an actor who’s done so many commercials, he probably knows several casting agents. They can help him get a meeting with a theatrical agency,” she said. “But he has to ask.”

Tadross said he should do some research on the casting directors who take chances on unknown talent. "They're out there. So are experimental directors. But you have to get seen," he said.

Jimmy realizes he’s been luckier than most who try their hand at acting. But he said he’s frustrated by the chase.

“Look, having done so many commercials -- that tells me I have something that people have hired me for,” he said.  “But it’s been a while since my last commercial, and there comes a time when being a struggling, broke actor ceases to be charming,” he said.

So in the meantime Jimmy has gone back to school. He’s not giving up on the dream, but he believes he needs a bit of focus on something else besides the dream.

There is something I always tell people when they ask me for advice on how to succeed in the world of acting, broadcasting or other big media: keep it simple and concentrate on the work.

Because at the end of the day success becomes a lot like love -- you only find it when you stop looking for it.

Mike Straka is the project manager for FOX News' Web operations and contributes as a features reporter and producer on FOX Magazine (Sundays 11 p.m. on FNC), a producer on Sunday Best (Sundays 9pm on FNC), and as a reporter and columnist for 

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