JAIME CLARKE is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, the editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES and co-founder of Post Road , a national literary magazine.
~~Thanks to Jaime Clarke for writing our blog’s first Guest Post. More to come!~~
DESPERATELY SEEKING PACINO
Eric Rivas, aspiring actor, was born in Brooklyn and when I meet him I’m at Joe Allen, a friendly Broadway bar and restaurant where nervous Hollywood actors are known to knock back a whiskey and soda before a Broadway debut. I’m soliciting an opinion on fame from the bartender, George, himself an aspiring actor, when Mr. Rivas leans over and says. “Being famous means you’re more than everybody else.”
In New York, Conversation Interruptus is a common disease among the people. There is always someone trying to aggressively insert themselves into your life. But Mr. Rivas’s words come down with such an authority it begs further exploration. Wait until you find out what he is doing at Joe Allen.
We talk for a moment before awkwardly backing up and introducing ourselves. You can’t cross the street in Manhattan without passing an entire cast of aspiring actors, so the fact that Eric longs to see himself on the silver screen is in keeping with the wish-upon-a-star mentality that draws amateur thespians the world over to the Big City of Dreams. But it’s the method to this particular actor’s madness that is intriguing. Eric Rivas believes the key to his career is in rubbing shoulders with the famous, most specifically the shoulders of Academy Award-winning actor Al Pacino.
Sure, Eric is enrolled in acting school. Lee Strasburg, William Esper. He’s studied privately with John Turturro’s cousin; he’s been to an open call in the dead of winter for Francis Ford Coppola. Eric’s tossed a football with John Cusack. He caught an airport-bound Robert De Niro and invited him across the street to a TriBeCa bar for a game of pool. De Niro declined but, undeterred, ever-ready, Eric flashed Bobby D. his card and said, “If you ever need someone to play your son, please call me.” De Niro stopped packing the trunk of his limo and watched Eric cross the street, regarding him, waving tentatively when Eric stopped and waved before disappearing back into the bar. And while Eric admits that lightning can strike anywhere, he looks for his break to come from only one place—Al Pacino.
The thing that really strikes you when you’re talking to Eric isn’t so much that he looks like Pacino, it’s how much he acts like Pacino. The quiet, intelligent voice that’s almost a whisper but can explode with excitement and animation. The hand gestures. The cock of the head. You wonder which came first.
Eric admits his initial curiosity about Pacino stemmed from the comparison. But Eric was quickly inspired by the actor, and has felt a calling ever since. “Pacino is a God. He’s portrayed the human character in full. From hate to soft vulnerability. From jealousy to a man in power. You move people in that way and you become their God,” he says, lecturing like Tony Montaña giving instructions to his men.
Fate can sometimes be a cold hand, dealing from a different deck for different people. Some people get more cards than others, is the way Eric sees it. Not only does he look like a famous actor, his life has intertwined with this famous actor, sometimes cosmically and sometimes coincidentally but always, always leaving Eric with the feeling that Al Pacino is his guardian angel, come down from Mt. Thespus to help guide Eric’s career.
When Eric was playing football with John Cusack, it was because he’d wandered on to the set of City Hall. Credit hours and hours of dreaming of becoming famous for the fact that no one on the set asked Eric who he was, or what he was doing there. The famous have their own body language and apparently Eric has mastered it. Cusack waved Eric deep—out of Cusack’s range, as it turns out—and near Pacino’s trailer just as Pacino walked out. Eric coolly introduced himself and the two shook hands like peers before Pacino moved swiftly on.
Another time Eric wandered on to the set of Donnie Brasco. He turned the corner and bumped into Pacino and Johnny Depp, walking side by side down Mulberry Street.
Sure, it’s New York and you can’t turn a street corner without trespassing a movie set. But how can you explain Pacino suddenly standing next to Eric at a newsstand on 57th Street between 8th and 9th? Or Eric winning tickets to Hughie, a Broadway play starring—you guessed it—Saint Al?
While those episodes can be dismissed as coincidence, or the law of averages, Eric knows when Fate comes calling. Like the time Eric was working as an usher at the movie theater where Pacino just happened to catch a flick just as a fellow employee returned a student film Eric had loaned him to show the employee his work. Eric spotted his opportunity and followed Pacino out the back way, the tape tucked under his arm. What we do and don’t recognize is that celebrities are, well, just people. Some move in entourages that fog out any glimpse of them or any opportunity to approach them. And while Pacino needs a little help from the manager moving through the lobby of a busy movie theater, on the street he seems happy to take his chances as just another urban pedestrian.
And you might be surprised at how amenable a celebrity is to your unwelcome, unbidden intrusion into their private life. The approach would, I imagine, have to be a smidgen subtler than the fan who beat Eric to Pacino behind the theater. “Yo, you should do Scarface 2 except in this one Al Pacino dies and his sister takes over! Yo! Yo! As a matter of fact I always wanted to become an actor!” But how can a celebrity differentiate between a hopelessly moronic, overzealous fan and a true sociopath? Celebrities must train themselves, either formally or informally, in the art of personal security and know how to quickly distance themselves from a dangerous situation. But because they are just people, they’ll probably give you the benefit of a few minutes of their time (at least until they see a wild flash in your eye, or a tattered copy of The Catcher in the Rye in your back pocket).
The Scarface fan receded into the night, off to tell his friends a story they probably won’t believe, and Eric politely stepped up next to Pacino. “Hi, Mr. Pacino? My name is Eric Rivas. I work in the movie theater right there.”
“Nice to meet you,” Pacino flashed him that warm, almond-eyed moviestar smile.
“I was with a girl yesterday who told me I looked like you,” Eric said.
“Oh, I could see that,” Pacino said. He started to move up the street. Eric matched his stride and said, “I was hoping you could take a look at my work. I did this film.”
The black tape passed from Eric’s hand to Pacino’s hand to the hand of someone suddenly standing next to Pacino. “You’ll have to give me a month,” Pacino said. He waved goodbye.
Eric scans Joe Allen as he recounts the story, trying to bionically peer through the glass and wood partition separating the dining section from the bar. Eric has learned that Pacino eats at Joe Allen every Monday night. And it’s been exactly a month.Celebrity hunting is a cottage industry in Southern California. The ratio of famous to unfamous is high, and the concentration of famous people in and around Los Angeles guarantees the run on Maps to the Stars’ Homes will last well into the next millennium. What strikes you about the homes on the maps (the veracity of which is always dubious) is that many are without gates or imposing stone walls. Beverly Hills is apparently one of those places where celebrities move about comfortably, where they feel safe to live as normal a life as they can without having to protect themselves from the likes of you and me. Joe Allen is apparently one such safe-house; but when I meet Eric a weekend later for a night of celebrity hunting, he tells me that his information about Pacino’s eating habits might have been a little shaky.
“He never showed,” Eric says, shrugging. “I guess I’ll see him later.”
Eric’s casual tone convinces you that he will indeed see Pacino later. A thought that occurred when I first met Eric—that Pacino probably never saw his film, and worse, probably couldn’t produce the tape if asked—apparently has never crossed Eric’s mind. How many black tapes has Al Pacino been handed in his life? There are probably less stars in the universe.
This night Eric has left his acting hat at home and we hit the streets as fans, as celebrity spotters. Eric frequents the celebrity hot spots in Manhattan, the dark bars and restaurants where the famous can have a drink or enjoy a meal in relative anonymity—Moomba, Lot 61, Bowery Bar & Grill, Veruka. Our first stop is 147 and in the cab to Chelsea Eric relates his latest celebrity run-in. The documentary film company Eric works for sent him over to Tim Robbins’ film company with a delivery. Expecting a secretary or another struggling actor to answer his knock, Eric was floored when Tim Robbins himself opened the door, casually signing for the delivery. To Eric, that’s the unremarkable part of the story. Remarkably, Eric saw Tim Robbins two days later in a coffee shop and, of course, Eric went up and introduced himself.
“He remembered me,” Eric says. “He had that look of recognition when I shook his hand.”
After worrying incessantly all afternoon about dress codes and secret passwords, I’m amazed that the doorman at 147 lets us in without asking us a single question. “You just have to act like you belong here,” Eric tells me. The coatcheck is in the unheated antechamber and, unencumbered of our jackets, we make our entrance like a prom couple. The long, narrow, fairly well-lit room is packed with high-fashion bodies. People look up mid-conversation and, seeing no one they recognize, continue talking to whomever is listening to them between distractions.
We saunter with our drinks up the handicap-type ramp that leads to the curtained-off back room, the restaurant. All the white skin and black clothes creates an oddly disorienting chiaroscuro and we lean against the rail, scanning the tables for a famous face.
It isn’t long before we’re forced from our lookout by a waiter who tells us we’re standing in a service area. He invites us to go to the lounge, which is down a steep staircase lit by a flickering candle on each step. The lounge feels like a celebrity hangout. Plush couches are positioned around elegant wood tables. The brick walls have been painted white and you can barely make out the DJ in the corner, spinning the music coming over the speakers at a tolerable level.
Eric sinks into a couch and spreads his arms, aping Michael Corleone from The Godfather. He lights a cigarette and his head jerks back when he exhales. He flicks his ash with a quick flutter, raising the cigarette to his lips. Even though the bar is a mere few feet from our couch, a very attractive waitress in a low-cut burgundy lace top leans over our couch, touching me on the shoulder as I tell her our order. I notice the waitress uses the same method with all the men in the lounge. Two beers and an hour later, Eric and I have a hard time leaving the glove-like comfort of the lounge at 147 where, even though we didn’t spot any celebrities, we got treated like one.
In the cab down to SoHo we discuss the probability of gaining entrance to our next destination, Spy, and it turns out their door policy isn’t so friendly. While the two women in front of us have relatively no problem getting in—one of the girls’ ID is from Italy and there’s some discussion about it among the doorman, who are well-dressed and handsome, but I’d be surprised if they could point Italy out on a map.
The velvet rope separating the doormen from the rest of us retracts and the women disappear into the bar.
“You gentlemen on the guest list?” one of the doorman asks, looking us over.
We admit that we aren’t.
“It’s a private party tonight,” the doorman says and turns away from us.
It looks like we are going to have the same problem at Balthazar, a hip bar up the street from Spy. The doorman asks us if we have reservations. Eric pulls the guy aside, saying something to the doorman in a low voice. The doorman rolls his eyes but miraculously opens the door for us.
“What did you tell him?” I ask.
“I told him I was Pacino’s son and that my father was meeting me here in a half an hour,” Eric says, smiling.
“And he believed you?”
“No,” Eric says, shaking his head. “But what choice does he have? If I am telling the truth, and he doesn’t let me in, what’s he going to do when Pacino shows up and finds his son shivering on the sidewalk? That guy would lose his job for sure and it isn’t worth it to him.” Eric’s reasoning is sound and we both recognize the frightening presumption his theory is based on, that celebrities are so powerful they can dictate employee policy at a restaurant they may or may not choose to patronize.
Balthazar is a too-bright European-style restaurant where the clientele, again mostly white and dressed in black, are crammed in at tables so close you must be able to hear the person next to you breathing. The room is a perfect square and the ceiling is high. A person of questionable employ offers to take our jackets and we let him. We pay eight dollars for a flute of champagne and pace the room.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spot the evening’s first celebrity. I nudge Eric and we casually saunter toward a small table in the corner. All we can see is the back of this gentleman’s smooth, shaved head. Eric and I angle around and pretend to admire a cluster of wine bottles on display in a wood cabinet. We both furtively glance over at the table and, much to my surprise, it isn’t the comedian Don Rickles but instead a very gracious, older man who might be celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary.
There’s talk of going uptown to a few places, or maybe to Hogs and Heifers where Julia Roberts was photographed dancing on the bar with one of the waitresses. “That reminds me,” Eric says, pulling out his wallet. “I wanted to show you this.” It’s a picture of Eric with Mariah Carey. Eric has his arm around Mariah’s shoulder as she peeks over a pair of sunglasses at the camera. “She comes into my mother’s salon,” Eric explains. I admire the photo and he carefully places it back into his wallet.
“Daddy still comin’?” the doorman sneers as we leave Balthazar. We ignore him and make our way down the street. Someone has thrown out a life-size cardboard cut-out of James Dean and Eric and I laugh at the one-dimensional celebrity. We discuss whether or not to visit a couple of other spots in the neighborhood that may or may not be celebrity havens. Finally, we decide to call it a night. I wish Eric luck and tell him I’ll look for him on the Big Screen. “Maybe it’ll be me and Pacino on the same screen,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be something?” I tell him it would.
*originally published in the first issue of Post Road Magazine; printed by permission of the author.