A word of caution to all you fame seekers hanging out at the Hollywood mall, head shots in hand, hoping to get discovered by a Tinseltown honcho on the make for new faces: It ain’t gonna happen.
Which is not to say that you’re not ready for your close-up. But most of the tales you’ve heard about random showbiz discoveries are likely flack-fed propaganda or simple exaggeration (what, you really thought Bruce Springsteen just happened to pluck Friend Courteney Cox out of the crowd in that ”Dancing in the Dark” video?). Heck, even the long-held legend about Lana Turner — discovered while sipping a soda at Schwab’s — is not entirely true.
Still, the entertainment industry has been known to mine talent in strange ways. ”I hate to put out false hopes,” cautions Psycho star Janet Leigh, who had plans to be a teacher before a family snapshot turned her into a starlet, ”but the wonderful thing is that miracles do happen.” What follows are six such miracles, proving that sometimes all it takes to make it in Hollywood is a uniform (see Burt Lancaster), a mean case of stage fright (who knew Ella Fitzgerald wanted to boogie?), or being a klutz (check out how Chris Klein bumped his way to Election). Tight sweater and a cola not included.
COUNTER ACTION: LANA TURNER
By the time Turner published her 1982 autobiography, Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, she had endured enough gossip, rumors, and falsehoods to keep the tabloids in business for years. But one of the biggest misconceptions she wanted to clear up was that of her own discovery in 1936. The hangout for which 15-year-old Judy Turner ditched her Hollywood High typing class to grab a soda was not Schwab’s Drugstore but the nearby Top Hat Café. Notes author W.R. Wilkerson III, whose father — then owner of the Hollywood Reporter — is credited with spotting the actress as she sipped a Coke: ”When the owner of the Top Hat Café, who made a fortune from the discovery, decided to close shop and apparently retire to Florida [four years later], people began asking ‘Well, since the Top Hat is no longer there, where was she discovered?’ The nearest café or something similar to the Top Hat was Schwab’s, but that was two or three miles down the block — she would’ve had to have been a helluva sprinter.” The elder Wilkerson gave Turner his business card, but the girl, likely wary of the numerous casting-couch rumors, asked to speak with her mother first. ”It was hard for [people] to believe — a powerful man giving a break to an obscure 15-year-old just didn’t compute,” says Wilkerson, whose father eventually helped land Turner a deal with Zeppo Marx’s talent agency. Her first gig? As an extra in 1937’s A Star Is Born. How appropriate.
PICTURE PERFECT: JANET LEIGH
All Leigh had to do to break into the biz was take a vacation. During a 1945 visit to her parents at California’s Sugar Bowl Ski Lodge, the then-18-year-old Leigh casually posed for an outdoor snapshot wearing an army jacket. Her father, who worked as the lodge’s assistant desk clerk, placed the surely stunning photo on his desk, where it later caught the eye of vacationing actress Norma Shearer. ”She said to my dad, ‘Would you mind if I took that back to Hollywood with me?”’ says Leigh. Shearer had an 8 x 10 made and brought it with her to a Tinseltown power dinner that included agent Charlie Feldman. The actress asked the agent to follow up on the girl in the photo, and though Feldman didn’t share her enthusiasm, as Leigh notes, ”no one could say no to Norma Shearer.” Seeking a polite way out, Feldman flagged down MCA mogul Lew Wasserman, who was walking by their table, and handed him the photo. ”So Lew got stuck with the picture of Norma Shearer’s discovery,” laughs Leigh, ”but then he gave it to [MCA’s] new-talent department.” Leigh, who had virtually no acting experience, received a letter from the studio soon after moving to L.A. with her bandleader husband. She eventually screen-tested and won her first role, as the love interest in 1947’s The Romance of Rosy Ridge. ”[The part] was a young mountain girl — 16, naive, and innocent,” recalls Leigh. ”And God knows, I was naive.” She was so green, in fact, that during her screen test ”I found my way to makeup, and they said, ‘Go to stage 27 and see A.D.’ So I found the stage and said, ‘May I speak to Mr. A.D.?’ I didn’t know that A.D. was assistant director. I didn’t know diddly.” Except maybe that her breakthrough was ”a one-in-a-million chance — no, a one-in-a-trillion chance, actually.” She can do the math; we’ll just enjoy the movies.
SUITED FOR SUCCESS: BURT LANCASTER
Lancaster’s career was going nowhere the day he stepped onto an elevator at New York’s Royalton Hotel in 1945. At 32, he was home from the war and seemed to have no choice but to re-up at his old job as a circus gymnast. ”It was pretty pathetic — he was facing an empty future,” says writer Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. His soon-to-be-wife, Norma Anderson, had convinced him to speak with her boss, radio producer Raymond Knight, to get some advice about other opportunities. On his way to see Knight, dressed in his military threads, Lancaster was quietly given the once-over by fellow elevator passenger Jack Mahor, a talent scout whose boss happened to be casting the part of a young sergeant in the Broadway play A Sound of Hunting. After Mahor made a frantic call to Knight’s office to inquire about the uniformed stranger, Lancaster got the part. ”There was a lack of available actors” because so many men were in the service, says Buford. ”They were desperate — he happened to look the part and they had no idea if he could act.” Turns out he could, and would later earn critical acclaim in a career that spanned some 70 feature films and included an Oscar-winning turn in 1960’s Elmer Gantry.
COLD FEET: ELLA FITZGERALD
During the Depression, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre began staging what would become one of the most fabled — and anxiety-inducing — rituals in show business: amateur night. Starstruck dreamers would write their names on cards and drop them in a box, hoping to get lucky — and selected to strut their stuff. On a dare, the 16-year-old Fitzgerald filled out a card, and when her name was drawn in January of 1934, the Harlem resident (and future jazz immortal) seized the opportunity to show off the skill she had spent endless hours perfecting: dancing. Fortunately for Fitzgerald, a now-forgotten troupe called the Edwards Sisters preceded her on stage, and their fancy footwork so intimidated the teen that the MC, noticing her fright, asked if she would rather sing. Fitzgerald nervously agreed, and though she knew only two songs — ”Judy” and ”Believe It Beloved” — she wowed the audience, won the $25 first prize, and caught the attention of musician and arranger Benny Carter (who would become a musical collaborator and friend throughout her career). ”Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from the audience,” she later recalled. ”I knew I wanted to sing before people my entire life.” And for that, we are forever indebted to those dancing Edwards Sisters.
PARTY FAVOR: MARIAH CAREY
Even a diva has to pay her dues. By 1988, recent high school grad Carey was working three jobs in New York City: waitress, coat checker, and backup singer for R&B vocalist Brenda K. Starr. But the one gig she wanted — a successful solo career — still eluded her. While at an industry party, the ambitious Carey was about to hand over a demo tape to a scout when CBS Records president Tommy Mottola intercepted the cassette, took off with it, and played it in his car. He liked what he heard — a lot. ”[The tape] didn’t have my name on it,”’ Carey has said. ”He couldn’t match up the voice with this Long Island kid in a football cheerleading jacket. So he drove back to the party to find me, and I was gone.” But Mottola was determined to play his hunch, and managed to contact Carey shortly thereafter and sign her to a contract, thus launching the pop princess’ career (her self-titled debut would nab two Grammys and sell 9 million copies) and transforming her personal life as well (the two wed in 1993 and filed for divorce four years later).
BUMPING INTO STARDOM: CHRIS KLEIN
Sometimes, in order to get your first big role, you simply have to… stay in shape. In early 1997, Klein, then 18, was exiting the weight-training room in his Omaha high school when he accidentally bumped into his principal, who was giving director Alexander Payne — in the midst of scouting locations for his dark satire Election — a tour of the facilities. Klein had been performing in school plays, and the principal talked up the young thesp to the director. ”I looked at him and just went, ‘Wow,”’ said Payne, struck by ”a certain charisma” the young actor-in-training exuded. A few months later, soon after Klein had matriculated at Texas Christian University, the director tracked him down and asked him to read for the part of a good-natured but dull jock who runs for class president, a role he eventually won. And he was on his way. Thanks to Election, he nabbed plum roles in American Pie and the lead in the upcoming remake of Rollerball.
INSIDE SCOOP: WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER GOTTEN?
Don’t confuse fame with success. If you want to be an actor, be an actor, but don’t look to be famous. I was 50 before Hollywood came knocking, but I thought I was successful well before then. You don’t have to have everyone knowing who you are to be doing good work.
— Brenda Blethyn, actress