Sunday, October 8, 2017

Staying AfterSchool with Lance Guest

It's so difficult not to gush here. I'm a life long lover of Lance Guest, having discovered him as a teenager in The Last Starfighter. I remember his stint on Lou Grant, and always love when he shows up in something, like The X-Files (and am unashamedly beyond thrilled when he doesn't die in the Halloween 2 TV edit!) I'm so very excited and frankly, a little honored, that Guest took some time out to answer a few questions about working on the ABC Afterschool Special and television in general. He had a lot of interesting things to say about his time on the small screen, and he gave some great insight into the Afterschool Special, which was this month's topic over at my companion podcast, The Made for TV Mayhem Show! He also name drops some awesome TVM titles at the end! Thank you Lance, and everyone else... enjoy!

Guest and Sean Astin in the harrowing Please Don't Hit Me, Mom
Amanda Reyes: Please Don't Hit Me, Mom was one of the first things you did in film or television. Were you aware of the importance of the Afterschool Specials when you auditioned?

Lance Guest: First of all, no one ever asks about these shows, which were largely part of what I remember to be a late 1970's-era attempt to deal with problems kids might be having in a format that was marketed directly TO kids. Although I hadn't seen many, as they were a little after my time as an adolescent, I remember that, for the most part, they tried to address some serious problems honestly, with a kind of PBS idealism that was unique to that time period of American TV culture. I believed very strongly at that time that TV had a huge influence on kids and was worried that the industry's commercial profit motive would ultimately overshadow any "message" or "value" that the show may want to put across if it contradicted the pro-consumer agenda that fuels the TV industry. It was a transition period from the 70's-era of social commentary, dominated by the likes of Norman Lear, toward the Reagan-era period of so-called Conspicuous Consumption, characterized by kitschy primetime soaps about the particular dramas of wealthy people, which basically served as its' own commercial for a more material society.

Yeah - I wasn't even 21 years old. So, yes, not only was I aware of the "important" intentions of these pieces, I was very much in favor of them, as they were right in line with what I felt was the best use of my skills as an actor. The unfortunately titled Please Don't Hit Me, Mom was originally penned without the Please, which was later added in an apparent attempt to avoid sounding unintentionally humorous (the title was still lampooned by my college friends) but I was proud of what was a pretty damn good show, and, which was in fact produced by Norman's company.  (I would eventually work on one of these goofy prime time soaps for almost a year, about 10 years later -which, to its credit, and in its own way I must admit, tried to address some of the same social concerns,occurring, as they did, in the early 90's).

Guest in Please Don't Hit Me, Mom
AR: That was a really intense episode. Did you do any research on child abuse, and what kind of research would that have entailed? For instance, was there something like a child psychologist on set?

LG: As I remember, there wasn't a psychologist on the set of the show, but in that day, the issue of child abuse was not a complicated thing to understand, and sadly did not require a ton of research, especially as it was presented to young teenagers. Pretty much everyone knew what was up. Nancy McKeon was about 6 years younger than me, and always seemed to have a pretty clear grasp of it. She may have done some research, but as I remember, it was Anna (Patty Duke, Anna was her real name) that did most of the heavy lifting, as she took a lot of the storytelling and the presentation of the pathology on herself (as well as the supporting cast of doctors and parents) I think it was my third or fourth professional job, so I just concentrated on my own stuff.

AR: Are you aware if there was any impact on the audience after it aired?

LG: I don't know if there's a way to gauge the audience impact of something like that. It's not really an issue that people are known to come forward with, but our job was to, I guess, raise awareness, so that people that saw it would come forward. Or a least to recognize behavior that might point to the protection of another. (I am answering these questions not having seen it in over 35 years) I think it won an award or was aired in prime time - much like the one I did later, One Too Many.

AR: So, of course I have to ask about working with Patty Duke. What was she like?

LG: Anna was very serious, I should say she took it very seriously, as her own nine-year-old son Sean played the abused child. I had always thought she was a tremendous actress, and I very much looked forward to working with her. As I said, she wanted to be very precise with the pathology and very honest with the emotion. I don't know what she drew on for this as she is admittedly a survivor of Manic Depression Disorder and alcoholism, but I don't believe she had personal experience to draw on for this show. By the time I met her she was a mother in her early 40's, and a fairly repentant former wild child, as were many in her occupation and generation.

TV Spot for One Too Many:

AR: I am going to repeat the first two questions and ask about the Afterschool Special One Too Many. Was there any kind of research or preparation involved for working on a film about drunk driving? And do you think the special had any influence on the teenagers who watched it?

LG: One Too Many. I am proud to say that I'd had no experience with drunk driving personally at the age of 24, and very little experience with actual drinking. I required very little research to be "the sensible one" of the duo of Val's character and mine. I'd had best friends that were "adventurers" in high school and middle school, but I was very much on the straight side in those years. Also, I don't want to sound as though I never did any research or back story work on my characters. It was just after about 1983 when I had studied with a great acting teacher, Jack Fletcher, who had stressed the importance of research. Prior to 1983, I just had high school and college theatre, neither of which had impressed the concept of "research" on me (which it turns out, is a very creative tool - more than you would think). My biggest acting challenge on that show was 1) to keep a straight face - believe it or not, Val Kilmer is one of the funniest individuals I have ever encountered - and 2) not to fall madly in love with both of my remaining co-stars Mare Winningham and Michelle Pfeiffer. Besides failing miserably on all three counts, I was happy with the result. Obviously the combination of drinking, driving and teenagers has always been a bad one, and there have been anti-drinking propaganda films for as long as I can remember, but it still remains a problem. Perhaps in the age of Uber and Lyft, we will see less incidents. I felt the twist at the end of our story hit pretty hard, and the acting and writing was overall pretty damn good. I think the show was not only bumped up to prime time, but was selected for some US Congress' official film to be presented to schools. So we were government-approved.

Guest and Val Kilmer in One Too Many
AR: You were in three Afterschool Specials. Did you have to keep auditioning for the roles, or did they just bring you in when they thought you were right for a part?

LG: The Director, Peter Horton, had cast Val, Mare, and Michelle, and was looking for my part when he saw Last Starfighter on an airplane and called me up. So, I didn't have to audition. My follow-up movie to Last StarFighter was about to shoot, and I was in LA for a few weeks. That follow-up fell apart financially and sadly never got made. That's when I went up to  Toronto to do [the telefilm] My Father My Rival

AR: What was production like? For example, did you get a lot of time to rehearse and work with the other actors and filmmakers or were these very quickly made?

LG: In general. low budget TV production - which is always what Afterschool Specials were - is always fast, which means usually very little rehearsal. That said, I feel like we got enough, since the object of these shows is not so much profit but accuracy, so although it was fast and cheap, I always felt properly rehearsed. Just in general, it felt good to be a part of something that had as its motive some sort of message or awareness instead of straight up entertainment. Martin Tahse produced many of them, and on Between Two Loves, I experienced the joys of video-assist, which meant all takes were "printed,"meaning that they had a complete record of ALL takes so they didn't have to print ones they didn't use. Very reassuring to the actor and very economical, as film was expensive and by editing on tape first, printing costs were limited to the handful of takes actually used. This was 82 -83(?) - way before the digital camera.

Guest and Karlene Crockett lighting my fire in Two Loves for Jenny (aka Between Two Loves)
AR: In Two Loves for Jenny (aka Between Two Loves) you play the violin quite well. Are you a violinist or did you have to have some training?

LG: I [have been] a guitar player for almost 50 years, and can pass on drums, piano, bass, and banjo, but I had to learn to fake the violin. I can do the fingering pretty convincingly and had to be taught proper bowing technique, but what they did was loosen the strings and put Vaseline on the bow, so that it was completely silent and I just memorized the dynamics and thrashed away to playback. Air-Violin - if you will. I love the way the violin sounds and I saw my "teacher/coach" play a Tchaikovsky concerto once that was so outside it convinced me that he was the Jimi Hendrix of the violin. 

Guest in Two Loves for Jenny
AR: I have to tell you, Loves has three of my favorite actors. You, Robert Reed and Karlene Crockett. What was it like working with them? Do you know what became of Karlene?

LG: It sounds like Karlene still does theatre. Her husband was a teacher and friend of a bunch of my friends and my cousin Jarion up in Mill Valley. He sadly passed away recently. I just remember her being very good. Robert Reed judged/sponsored a Shakespeare competition back when I was at UCLA which my girlfriend Kerry and I won in 1980 as undergrads. It was $500 that bailed me out of a jam when I was down to $9. So I was able to thank him for that. That was fun.

AR: Having worked on three specials, what was your overall experience on those projects, and being a part of the Afterschool Special legacy?

LG: As I stated before, it was really more important for me at that time to be part of something that at least intended to have a positive effect beyond just entertainment. I thought that everything was political. I was over-critical of most of Hollywood's output then, and even though we got paid very little, it made up for a lot of the less noble things that all young actors have to be a part of.  If I saw them all now, I might find them a bit earnest, but compared to what my friend calls the "Get the Nerd Laid" movies that ruled the 80's landscape for 20-something actors, it felt rewarding, probably because I remember seeing the first good ones when I was younger.

Making tough teen choices in Two Loves for Jenny
AR: Which of the three episodes if your favorite? And why?

LG: I would say all three have their good and bad points. Please Don't Hit Me, Mom (That Title!) was probably the most daring subject to tackle, but I was not that experienced an actor, so I don't remember how great my performance was, but I respected it a lot. One Too Many: [It] was fun to work with all those great actors and director, [and] was probably the most comfortably realistic dialogue for those things, but my role was subdued and the least colorful, but still fun. And Between Two Loves was the most dynamic character of them all, but the issue was considerably softer, being just one of jealousy and competition and love.

AR: You've worked in both film and television. I know film likes to go big while TV tends to go small. As an actor, do you feel you have to approach your roles differently, depending on the medium?

LG: Not really, especially between those two. On stage you have to be bigger, or nobody gets it.  I disagree that film requires bigger. A lot of times film requires you to be smaller because the screen is so big.  TV can be 8 feet wide at the largest and cellphone-sized at the smallest. Honestly, I don't make any adjustments. I try to be truthful first and foremost and amp it up if the director asks me to. Which is most of the time.

Guest in Lou Grant

AR: The character of Lance Reineicke appeared on several episodes of Lou Grant during the final season. What do you remember about working on that series?

LG: Again, my very first job (I was Mark the year before, but they just remember Lance so that guy went into the next season). Talk about setting the tone for what i wanted to do with my career. Lou Grant was regarded as having loads of integrity, coming on the heels of All the Presidents Men in terms of the public's taste for political news stories. Great writers, directors, and actors. Everything I came to expect from the industry was introduced to when I did Lou Grant. Most of the cast was fairly radical politically, and Ed, who was SAG president at that time came out (as a private citizen) with financial support for the so-called Marxist rebels in El Salvador, while the US government was supporting the other side. He got into all kinds of hell for that, and I was on the show during the time he would show up for work after having received various death threats. Ed has reconsidered his behavior some since then, but I thought he was super cool. I was 20 and had just left college. My character was not so much radical as kind of high-energy, dorky and impulsive. I had some great scenes with Linda Kelsey, Bobby Walden, and Darryl Anderson, all of whom I really respected. I was totally intimidated by Ed, who I had practically grown up with, watching  the Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was a great first job. 

TV Spot for Confessions of a Married Man:

14. So much television seems to be lost. I couldn't locate the telefilms Confessions of a Married Man or My Father, My Rival. What can you tell us about working on telefilms in this era and if you feel there is an importance to making these projects more accessible?

Ok, well, like said before, I think, The writing tended to be better on TV movies, than on many series. They often tackled important subject matter. I auditioned for a movie about nuclear holocaust and one about the nuns who were killed in El Salvador during the Sandinista Rebellion. I was very excited about them but for the first one, after having a perfect "nailed it" audition, they cast a guy who looks as much like me at the time as anyone, so much that I thought they might've thought he was me) and for the second, they hired my director for One Too Many, Peter Horton (who is a good actor/director and a cool guy). But interestingly, the director of that project, Joe Sargent, remembered me for when he directed Jaws: The Revenge, and offered me a lead part five years later. So, you never know what happens in an audition.

Promotional still for Confessions of a Married Man (dat cast!)
Confessions of a Married Man originally started as An Affair to Forget about a middle aged, indecisive, somewhat neurotic intellectual man who wants to leave his down-to-earth wife and two children for a more mentally stimulating younger woman. The writer wrote it originally for John Cassavettes, but the network chose Robert Conrad. Depending on how old you are, you will either get the irony or not. When you read the script, you could hear rhythms of Woody Allen or Alan Alda, and Bob was just not really that guy. Bob Conrad is a macho Old School Hollywood tough guy from The Wild Wild West and Black Sheep Squadron (who used to quote Steve McQueen on Hollywood: "Where else can you live this well without a gun?"). I thought, "Well this is gonna be interesting." I got along with Bob really well, though and steered clear of any political discussions.

I played a non-intellectual  high school football offensive lineman who has a five page scene at the end of the movie, which was supposed to bring Bob's character to tears, and convince him not to leave his family. When we got to the scene, they were going to cover Bob first, and he announced ,in his Chicago-ese "No way am I cryin' in this scene. Forget it. You're gettin' one take - and you'll get what you get!" The director comes up to me and implores me, "We have to get this. The whole movie doesn't work if he doesn't cry, and he won't take the drops.  It's on you." I was 22 years old. We did the scene and Bob cried. He was great. Then he just walked off the set. Classic. I'll always like him for that. Plus he was the star of one of only three TV shows my actual fighter pilot Dad would watch (Black Sheep Squadron) So that was fun. I had great scenes with my Mom, played by Jennifer Warren (who was Awesome). I used those scenes on my demo reel, instead of Last Starfighter for years. Don't know why. I guess I couldn't decide which ones to use. I don't know if anyone saw that movie, but I was happy with how it came out.

The same goes for The Roommate, which wasn't really, by format, a TV movie from the outset. Originally it was produced for PBS American Playhouse, which had been a pretty prestigious program during the 80's. It was based on a John Updike short story from the 50s, and the writer/producer Neil Miller and director Nell Cox decided they would shoot this low-budget piece in 35mm and try to make it an indie feature. They already had a deal with PBS but the extra production value of the time period would kick it up a notch. It was basically a 1952 college-roommate Odd  Couple, Barry Miller played beatnik purist Ghandi-disciple Hub from Portland OR, and I was uptight, religious, All American weenie Orson from South Dakota. It certainly played more like a feature than most TV movies, although it had a smaller "scope" as my screenwriter friend would say. And sadly it was never released commercially, but we did win the Grand Prize at the LA Indie Film Festival in 1985.

The Roommate
As a film experience it was unlike anything I had ever done, or will ever do. Updike's original story tended to be heady and deliberately uncomfortable, while the demands on a college-age target-demographic for a commercial film shared more with the college memoir comedies of that time, although certainly not as obvious. Those of us that thought we were making an "art film" shuddered at the incorrect notion that we would be making another Porky's. We were totally overreacting, but it was often contentious. Barry, an outspoken perfectionist, and I were solid with each other and would often stay up till four in the morning rehearsing, trying to get what the scenes were about, often suggesting alternate "beats." I must say, the writer/ producer and the director respectfully listened to our ideas, and sometimes used them, but the overall feeling was that we were all collaborating. It was the most fun I've ever had making a movie. By the end we didn't know what we had, but when I saw it, I felt like everyone really got what they wanted.

It won other festival awards, in Chicago and Toronto, I think, but was never released commercially. It aired on PBS in 1985. My parents liked it. I was so proud of having done an independent film that I used only this show on my demo reel for a few years, inadvertently causing my only auditions to be for solely uptight Midwestern weenies.  I was so naively anti-studio and anti-mainstream that I only wanted to appear in independent films. This was about 3 or 4 years before indies were really hip (in the late 80s early 90s).

Guest in Lou Grant
The next year, after I was told Last Starfighter didn't make any money at the box office, and a couple weeks after after my follow-up project (another indie film) fell apart, the newly founded HBO original programming department offered me what was presented as another Afterschool Special, but was really another TV movie for HBO. The original title had been Dark But Full of Diamonds, about a kid who loses his mom at 12 years old and falls in love with his swimming teacher, maybe 6 years his senior, who then starts dating his dad. when my character is 6 years older - so, at 18. My character was a lot of fun to play and I was working with Wendy Crewson, who I liked a lot as an actor. I played all the "Pissed off at Dad" notes with all the Freudian indignant transference and awkwardness, and it ended up pretty well. I had a great time in Toronto, where we shot it, although the fine director, Claude Jutra, didn't speak much English. The title was changed to My Father, My Rival, in my opinion, another title a little too "On the Nose."

So that's all I can say about the TV movies (or Movie Of the Week, as they used to be called) that I had anything to do with. I had been a fan of them when I was a kid in the 70's: Duel, Tribes, The Night Strangler, Sunshine, Melvin Purvis: G-man are the ones that stick out. But as the 80's went on, the TV movie demographic was identified as the "shopping housewife" so, whether that was deserving or not, the content, as a result, became exclusively stories of divorce, cheating husbands, murdered girlfriends, rape cases, lost children, poor little rich girls, etc. And usually by page 75, the leading female character has a "make-over montage" that is supposed to signify her "moving on," conveniently, providing a custom "commercial between commercials" to satisfy the sponsors. But the original reputation of the TV movie had been earned by more original content. Nowadays, with a company like HBO, the content seems less driven by commercial interests, and more pure story, or niche genres.

1 comment:

VoyagerG said...

This is a great interview with so much info on TV movies! Thank you, Amanda, and thank you, Mr. Guest, for sharing your experiences and opinions on the genre.