In the mid 1980’s a young man enrolled in my acting classes. He was 18, very good looking, and eager. He wanted to be, not just any actor, but an exceptional actor, and a working actor to boot. He would settle for nothing less. He could have gone to college. He grades were good and his father was willing to make a college eduction a reality. The young man insisted on the training I was able to give him. His father, knowing this, informed the young man that if he wished to study with me and not take advantage of a college education he would not financially support him. The young man would have a roof over his head and food on the table when he chose to eat at home, but any money needed to support the education the young man chose he would have to find a way to support himself. This was a very loving father who believed his son needed to be responsible for his decision.
The young man didn’t want to wait on tables, that was not an option for him. The question was how could he keep his days free for auditions as well as his evenings free for classes. Yes, he went to class every night and kept his weekends open for rehearsals and performances of plays that we occasionally staged at my little theatre. The only time he had free to earn his bread and butter was from midnight to the early morning hours.
In his class was another young man who happened to be a lawyer at a major law firm in downtown Los Angeles. The lawyer, a budding playwright, and the young man became fast friends. The two of them devised a plan where they would approach the law firm with a proposition. The firm produced a considerable amount of filing that had accumulated through out the day. This filing wasted the time of employees who’s efforts were better spent doing other things. The young man proposed they give him a chance to prove that between the hours of midnight and 6 am he would have all their days work efficiently filed. They gave him the chance and he quickly proved his value and the job was his.
Over the next couple of years the young man added new law firms and hired actors, friends, and family to do the filing for those companies. When he became a working actor he turned the business he crated over to his brother.
In the classroom he displayed the same integrity. He worked harder than most students. This was not only on his craft, but on whether a nail need to be hammered, or something need to be painted, a prop that was needed, or lumber which needed to be lugged form one spot to another. He offered support to other actors who seemed to be struggling with the craft, (only the hard workers like himself. He had little or no patience for the entitled student.)
Who was this diligent young actor? His name is Doug Savant. He began working in the 1980’s and has worked on a regular bases ever since. Most know him as one of the stars of Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives. Doug is married to one of his costars from Melrose Place and has two college aged children. This brings me to another tidbit about Doug that makes me terrible proud of this ethics. While portraying the gay character on Melrose Place, he never mentioned that he was straight or married in public. He keep his personal life a secret. He did not wish to disillusion his audience. This was in the 1990’s when many actors were still concerned about being perceived as gay. I believe Doug’s career has been successful not only because he is a truly talented man, but because of his work ethics. He has been a craftsman from the get go.
Stanislavsky, the originator of the acting craft as we know it, says, “Love not yourself in the art, but the art in yourself.” I know that what goes hand in hand with this love is a work ethic. Can work ethics be taught or is it something one does automatically because it is the best way to approach anything wholeheartedly? I believe I have a strong work ethic and it takes little work for me to be true to that ideal. Did I acquire it while studying actors that I wished to emulate? Maybe they just lit the fire that was ready to ignite inside me. Whatever, I’m thankful every day I have a strong work ethic.
Fellow actors say what they admire most about Tom Cruise is his work ethics. In a 60 Minutes interview when Will Smith was asked about his success he answered, “I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethics. You know while the other guys sleeping? I’m working. While the other guy’s eaten’? I’m working. While the other guy’s making love, well I’m making love to. But I’m working really hard at it.” I might take issue with Mr. Smith’s self evaluation of his talent, I take no issue with his work ethics.
While appearing on Broadway in her Tony nominated role in The Full Monty, my friend, the beloved character actress Kathleen Freeman, died of lung cancer. She performed in the show up to five days before her death. She lived by a code of ethics her entire career which consisted of hundreds of films and TV shows as well as theatre. It was her love of the theatre and her work ethics that enabled her to perform well into her illness.
In 1945 a 24 year old Kathleen Freeman while establishing one of the first small theaters in Los Angeles wrote a code of ethics to be agreed upon and signed by all the members of the company. This code of ethics must have been successful for the theatre and it company of actors were around for many years. If you wish to see the full list Google, a 1945 Code of Ethics. Here are the first three “rules” of the document.
I shall never miss a performance.
I shall play every performance with energy, enthusiasm, to the best of my ability regardless of size of audience, personal illness, bad weather, accident, or even death in the family.
I shall forego all social activities which interfere with rehearsals or any scheduled work at the theatre, and I shall always be on time.
There are 17 rules in all. Kathleen, who was born into a show business family, knew that for her theatre to succeed it needed people of like mind. She also knew that to succeed in her career she needed to follow a set of principles.
These are not rules to be instituted once you’ve gotten work. This work ethics begins when your in class, while you are studying and perfecting your craft. You need to discipline yourself so your work ethic becomes automatic, a way of life you don’t have to think about. It just happens.
I wish you all a successful career. Do your part in making it happen.
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