Cranston Christmas

When you work on ads for a retail company, your seasons are always all mixed up. Like crazy mixed up. During the Spring we were writing ads for Fall. During the Summer we were creating campaigns for Christmas. Everywhere,  everything was freakin’ Christmas – fluffy green plastic trees decked with festive shiny balls, frosty snowflakes on the walls, fleecy white tree skirts hugging the tree bases, red and green bows on large boxes that adorned the room – even some scary elves. These sinister miniatures with pointy hats were positioned in nooks in store shelving we had created, next to the classically unsightly patterned sweaters – patterns that were akin to a tornado or at the very least, pizza upchuck.

We endured all of this prep and production in record heat. Some days got up to 108. So in Cali where we did all of our work, it wasn’t just hot. It was Africa hot. I recall one shoot that was especially insufferable. We were in the desert handling sweaters and courdoroy jumpers for a Back-to-School sale. We got so sweaty and haggared that we looked like we had all been out changing a flat tire on our scouting van.

Finally, we decided that we’d had enough of near heat strokes, sweaty pits and smeared mascara running down our (female) collective cheeks. We decided to shoot in the store. This meant that we would have to shoot inside an actual JC Penney store – but after business hours. So we’d start shooting at 9 p.m. and break at dawn.

Prior to our LA shoot, during the “concepting” phase at the agency, we usually all got together to write the script in a cluster – and we all had positions. There was Mr. Beginning. Mr. Middle and Mr. Ending. (This was the classic structure of a :30 spot.) I didn’t care if I was called a mister. In this group, being a “mister” was an honor.

As was per usual, we all gathered in one of our very brown, dull conference rooms, cranked out a script quickly then spent even more time trying to figure out where we’d go for lunch.

We then took it to the client, presented it, and bing, bang boom it was approved.

We shot all of our spots in LA. In fact, we had to go to LA, as our big boss (head honcho guy) saw something that we had shot locally, was horrified because the film was so sub-par, and demanded that we not do this again. We didn’t.

So off we jetted to Hollywood to prep.

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We hired a very hip, very glittery Hollywoody couple, who were married, and who had names that went well together, kind of like Sam and Libby, but not Sam and Libby. I think it was like they had one name that was a mash up of their names like Nancy Michael. Something that rolled off the tongue and a name I’m sure our client (God love him) could drop when he was picking up girls at Champs.

The Man Director had a shock of black curly hair and a goatee, way before it was The Thing to Grow. The Woman Director was slim, brunette and sexy. She was interesting. Not a Barbie Doll.

A few days before the shoot in LA we usually did our casting. We needed someone funny. We would have loved to get a famous comedian. At the time, Seinfeld was IT. THE guy to hire. Could we get Jerry Seinfeld? Uh no. I don’t think any of us really thought Jerry Seinfeld would hawk any JC Penny sansabelt slacks. But we could dream.

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What about Carrot Top, someone asked?

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No. Too frightening. We would get slammed with customer letters for sure. Plus, my art director had a fear of red-heads, you know, ginger people. They were from the devil.

And then we hit upon an idea: if we can’t get Jerry Seinfeld, what about someone who was ON Seinfeld?

Enter Bryan Cranston, Elaine’s re-gifting dentist boyfriend.

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We had hit the jackpot.

The day of the shoot arrived and for some reason, I was the only writer on the set along with my brilliant boss.

There I was, all self-important and smiling about the script. All our witticisms, turns of phrases, and so on that we had birthed.

In walked Bryan. He was handsome. Cute handsome. Cute boyish handsome with dimples that grabbed my heart and yanked it out of my chest.

I think he even sparkled.

He examined the script, read it to himself, musing (I thought) over our clever monologue he was to deliver.

In the spot, we had a series of things that Bryan was to “interact” with as he made his way through the store ostensibly Christmas shopping: old man jeans, jewelry (teeny tiny chip diamond stuff), perfume, stuffed animals puppety things called Pillow Pets, and finally, roller luggage.

For the last scene, he had to deliver a line that went, “I got in, I got out. Nobody got hurt.”

Bryan gave us oodles of takes. All good, all different…but they just weren’t what I had in MY mind.

I stood back and let the directors do their work ….but not without yammering in Glenn’s ear (my boss, best one ever) about this one last take. He who was accustomed to (God bless him) putting up with my crapola calmly told me to hang tight, that “we’d get it.” But I could see he was irritated.

I finally walked up to the directors and gave them a line reading.

“You know, it needs to be more…more…off-handed…casual…no, I mean, it needs to be more…proud…” On I went. What I wanted to say was that it needed to sound like ME. But how would I tell them this?

The Woman of the Man-Woman team gave him the line reading…and my skin started to crawl. It was so NOT the way I had said it. It needed to be FUNNY.

She was not funny.

But since they were being paid thousands each for their day rate, I clinched my hands and smiled a Charlie Brown smile.

So again, Bryan delivered the line, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.”

By this time, I wanted to hurt someone.

The Man of the Man-Woman team looked at me. He turned from his director’s chair and gave me a thumbs up, as in, “Do we have it?”

I inched closer to the directors’ chairs and asked that he try it again.

I could see that Bryan was growing weary. So again, nice guy that he was, he did it again.

Still…it was not exactly what I had in mind.

I got a look from the frustrated directors and heard, “Lisa, why don’t you give him a line reading?”

I was already overstepping my bounds and awkwardly lodged between their two spindly-legged canvas chairs. So when I heard this, I made a beeline for Bryan, jostling them each a bit when I busted through with my child-bearing hips.

Trying to be coy and flirty, tense as I was because the clock was ticking (and I could see the crew giving me a lot of rolled eyes and frowny faces), I gave him the line reading.

I inched close to his face and said, over articulating, “I got in, I got out, nobody got hurt.” He looked at me. I looked at him. We connected.

Then the heavens parted.

He did the line. It was perfect.

And prince of a guy that he was, he kept on repeating the line a few more times just the way I liked it…just for grins.

The directors called “cut” and it was a wrap. I had gotten my way-too-important line reading.

The truth is that he made each scenario in our TV spot LEAGUES funnier than it had originally been scripted, just by being himself.

After the shoot, he and I got a Polaroid of us together. I cherish it, as it shows my younger, thinner self and him with more hair.

Here it is:

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Cut to many years later.

I knew Bryan had landed the dad role in “Malcolm in the Middle,” which tickled me.

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But when he became Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” I was elated.

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Unlike his comedic role on Seinfeld and in our TV spot, what emerged in Walter was this genius actor who revealed his true talents to the world. I hung on every episode and stayed up until the wee hours watching, unable to tear myself away from each gripping, cliff-hanging story.

I was an addict.

These days, his career has exploded and he has arrived. I feel really lucky to have worked with him.

Looking back, of course, I am embarrassed of my hubris – me, the average Jane copywriter giving the lauded Bryan Cranston a line reading. When I think back on his humility, good humor and humoring of me being so self-important, I just have to smile.

Every time I see him on TV, I experience a fondness for him and gratitude for his giving me this ridiculous memory of myself during his rise to the top.

And I must admit, I am Breaking Happy each and every time.

 




Crowe’s Feet

In 1999, I was in LA on a job. I was producing a radio spot I had written for JC Penney. At the time, my mother was in the Russell Crowe fan club. She and her friends, both in the Crowe’s Nest and the Silver Crowes, were agog about all things Russell: his latest movie, where he was filming, who he was dating (sleeping with), where he was last spotted, who he was with and I’m sure, what he had for breakfast and if it gave him gas.

She and I had travelled to Austin a number of times to see his band, TOFOG, perform. TOFOG is an acronym (sort of) for a film term: Twenty Odd Foot of Grunts. As opposed to laughs, or snorts, or farts.

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During my trip to LA, she suggested I contact some LA fans as there was a party where TOFOG was playing they were going to that I must attend. It was a wrap party for the movie, “Mystery, Alaska,” starring Russell and Judith Ivey. It was at the Viper Room, the place where River Phoenix died of an overdose.

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I didn’t know any of my mom’s friends. They were all sizes, shapes and ages. Gray hair retiree. Young tall blonde dentist/actress. Another who had tattoos up and down each arm. Totally sleeved out and wore a pair of overalls and t-shirt to display her body artwork and her pitiable endured pain. One woman in particular was an email pal of Russell’s.  I don’t have any idea of how this was possible. It remains a mystery to this day.

So prior to the fete, we decided to meet for dinner then go to the Viper Room, where we could be on The List.

It was not dark yet, perhaps around 6 p.m. We arrived, the motley crew that we were. In front of the door was an enormous, round black man the size of a bus. He wore a black suit, white shirt and shades. He did not smile.

Up walked one of us, the tall blonde dentist/actress. She had pretty white teeth and was herself lovely, so we thought she was our best candidate to approach this formidable wall of a man.

They exchanged pleasantries and then, the velvet rope was lifted and we were in.

Inside the club looked like a 40s nightclub. All around the room were white leather booths. Atop some of these sat white, crisp name cards that read “Reserved.” There were a few tables in the middle and on one wall, the stage, where TOFOG would play.

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En masse, we moved towards the bar, of course, to get our adult beverages. I got a house chardonnay. The others indulged in stronger fare: vodka, tequila, and whiskey. The lights were dim and moody, except for the wall of bright white light behind the liquor bottles that were on shelves behind the bar.

The crowd was thin. Guys with hipster dark hair, goatees, soul patches, in worn sexy jeans.  There were a few older guys with gray beards who looked like they might be electricians, gaffers, etc. There were some beautiful young women in revealing, hipster clothes who milled around who gave lots of hugs and air kisses to everyone.

We had trouble finding a table, as they were all reserved so we decided to assume a position at the back of the room.

Then it happened.

The buzz. The whispering. The gasps.

Russell Crowe was in the house.

With lots of craining of necks and subtle (and not-so-subtle) pointing we located him.

His hair was wild and wooly. He wore a navy blue shirt and jeans. Nothing special.

It was at this point that I felt it. The urge to go up and meet him. My mother had been so nuts about him. Every conversation ended up being about Russell. As I said, “All roads lead to Russell with mom these days.”

I felt I had an obligation.

I threw back a big gulp of the terribly average chardonnay. And made my approach.

Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “Hi, are you Russell”? Looking back, I am awed at my talent for stating the obvious.

“What’s your name?” he said.

I told him my name.

“My mother is huge fan so I just had to come over and meet you and shake your hand.”

His eyes were blue, stained glass windows, a kaleidoscope of sky blue and deep azure. His Aussie accent was thick, as was his five o’clock shadow.

“You tell your mum hello for me,” he said.

Then all of sudden, I got short of breath and was stricken with panic. The awkward silence was bellowing inside of me. We were face to face, locked in a gaze that was heavy with interest from my side and perceived (mine) slight interest from his side. At that point, I just slid my hand out of his manly grasp and stepped back. He smiled. I smiled. That was it.

I ran back, breathless, atwitter, exhilarated. I was a mini-celebrity within my group! Then the questions came: what were his eyes like? How did his skin feel? How close were you to his face?

TOFOG was slated to play in about a half hour so we refueled with a variety of spirits: gin, vodka, whiskey. And of course, my mediocre house chardonnay – sadly, un-buttery.

The place filled up pretty quickly around show time. We craned our necks to see Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger at those hallowed reserved tables. I did get a glimpse of the shine atop Danny’s cue ball, bald head.

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Kim was nowhere to be seen. Then the lights dimmed…and the crowd cheered. Russell and band were about to hit the stage.

The velvet curtains opened, parting like the Red Sea, and the drums struck and guitars wailed.

All eyes were on Russell.

Now, our valiant group had managed to work out way through the crowd to be on the front row. I was just left of the microphone and pressed up against the stage. My wine glass sat atop the very edge.

They started their set with an all-time favorite, one with jaunty, jangly guitars and lyrics about crossing a river. Russell then sang about heartbreak, lost love – each with a pained look, expressed through his eyebrows and furrowed forehead a la James Dean.

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I had imbibed a few more chardonnays so I was feeling a bit daring, even more so than I had been when I met Russell.

I was eye-level with the stage…and Russell’s feet…and Russell’s feet were bare. I could see the hair on his toes.

They were so tempting! They looked so cute, like little pink (albeit hairy) shrimps right in a row!

Then, as if I was possessed with some foreign spirit, all reason escaping me, I reached out and grabbed his toes.

Without flinching he yanked his foot from my grasp, and launched into another song.

Then, he looked at me. He smiled and wait for it…he winked at me.

I then let out a hideously “yahoo/squeal” like a wildebeest.

I had been validated. I existed. I was A-Okay.

Why was this so important? Why did I need a celebrity to validate my existence?

My take on this: we hold up celebrities in our society as modern day Gods from Greek society who possess immortality and/or super powers.

We don’t want to be invisible. We want to matter. We want to be loved.

If we are approved of by this lot, then somehow we, too, become elevated from the masses. And for a brief moment, we shine.

When the concert was over (and after two encores), the band escaped out a side door. Our group rushed as well as we could through the cloggy crowd after them to beg for autographs. One even went out the front and around to the side to see if she could see The Man, or better still, snag a band member. They were more accessible than Mr. Crowe and many of my group actually knew them, emailed then, had phone calls with them.

But they had vanished.

It had been rumored that they were staying at the Bel-age (nicknamed the “Gar-baahge” by my former ad world colleagues) so we got the bright idea to go in search of them at the hotel.

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We snuck in and then took to the stairwells, yelling their names, opening doors on each floor to see if any heads popped out of any doors. I’m surprised we weren’t arrested. This continued for a while until we gave up. No such luck. It was time to go back to our hotel.

That was over a decade ago. Since then, Russell has won an Oscar, had two kids and gotten a divorce. And until his recent starring role in “Noah,” (a far cry from the young, strapping gladiator years earlier), he has seemingly slipped from Hollywood’s radar.

How quickly one can disappear, like a vapor, from the limelight. How fickle the studios can be.

I wonder if Russell ever felt invisible during those days of non-screen time.

The last pic I saw of Russell reflected an older, greyer man. The man whose foot I grabbed, now had, yes, crow’s feet.

Time can be cruel to the beautiful.

Happily, though, my memory of meeting him is not tarnished. Both of us, he and I, will always be young, less wrinkled and vibrant. Sans sagging, high LDL, or dark circles.

I can safely say this man, Mr. Russell Crowe, and my memory of meeting him that star-filled night will always bring me to my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hair Brush with Fame

 

My dad did hair. Ladies came to him to get their hair “done.” My dad’s salon was called Preston Hairdressers and it was in the Park Cities, the Beverly Hills of Dallas. The heyday of this magical place was during the 1960s-70s, when big hair was big business in Texas. The customers included some of Dallas’ most famous: the former mayor, Annette Strauss. The real estate icon, Ebby Halliday. Dallas Morning News editor, Lee Cullum. And finally, Lulu Roman, the star of “Hee Haw.” It was Lulu who read my fortune when I was 10 and told me I would do “big, important things” in my life. See her picture below with her husband, Woody, who worked for my dad, or as my dad referred to him and others he employed, “they are one of my operators.”

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Nevertheless, for some mystical reason – perhaps it was growing up in this fanciful, glittery milieu – I have found myself popping up time after time in the company of the famous – and in the most bizarre, awkward of ways.

These are my stories.

Learn more about me here.

Email me at lisa.johnson7@gmail.com.