I run into someone special in my college classroom
After graduating from high school, I sat around for an entire year waiting for my agent to call. Even though he managed to get me more than a few interviews, parts never seemed to come my way. By year two, my parents began to worry. There was no way they wanted their friends and neighbors to think they were raising a good-for-nothing bum – a term I found out later fondly applied to all out-of-work actors. They finally gave me an ultimatum: I was to either get a job, or go to college. I chose the latter. With a legitimate paying job, I knew it would be difficult to break away if my agent called with an interview appointment. But if I was in college, all I would have to do was skip a class, run over to Hollywood for the audition, then race back and finish out my school day. I finally picked a small, two-year institution in the west San Fernando Valley called Pierce College. It offered a standard academic curriculum; exactly what I’d been told I needed. When I enrolled, it was suggested I take a full schedule of classes; they also told me I needed to chose a major and a secondary-major if I intended to go on to a university after graduation. I chose Theater Arts as my major, and Psychology as my secondary. My reason for choosing Theater Arts was obvious: I was an actor. I picked psychology because I thought it would help me – as an actor – to understand the human condition. The rest of my classes were the usual academic fare: English, Science, Mathematics; Physical Education, etc.
By the end of the first week I had dropped out of my English class. By the second, I had cancelled a few more. That left me with three classes to attend. The first was Physical Education. I stayed there because I had chosen square dancing; square dancing was the only Gym class that let guys mix with girls. I switched from Psychology, were I was learning nothing, to Scenic Arts. There I would learn all about backstage operations in a theater. My third remaining class was Drama – my favorite, of course. It allowed me to rehearse and perform scenes with other actors
My classmates were a friendly bunch. They included several local celebrities – Leon Ames, Jr., the son of famed actor Leon Ames; and Bob Eubanks, who was at the beginning of his soon to be remarkable entertainment career. Bob was working as a disc jockey on one of L.A.s teenage rock and roll stations. The others were more like me – wannabes; though I was probably the only actor in the room who had some experience in front of a camera. We all just wanted to learn more about the craft of acting. When I met them all for the first time, there was one guy who really made an impression on me. He was a somewhat over-weight, round-faced cowboy in his late twenties who, besides his ever-present straw Stetson, wore steel-rimmed glasses and sported a bushy, handlebar mustache. When we went around the room introducing ourselves, he announced his name was Bill. He told us right then and there we wouldn’t want to know his real first name because we’d more than likely think it was funny. Later on he told me he’d driven down from Utah to be in the movies. As a local Utah resident, he’d worked as an extra on a movie starring Glenn Ford. He said the first thing he’d witnessed on the set was the movie’s co-star, Rod Steiger, banging his head against the side of a barn before every take. A production assistant told Bill this action helped the New York method actor to prepare himself – it got him in just the right mood for a scene. During the filming of the movie, Bill watched Steiger continue the same type of self-destructive behavior every single day before every shot. “That was what made me decide to become an actor,” he said. When I asked him to expound, he shrugged. “I don’t know. I just figured if that crazy son of a buck could be a movie star and get away with that kind of crap, I might just have half a chance of getting into the movie-star business myself.” When the show was wrapped, Bill made up his mind to head for Hollywood and give acting a try. But his Utah friends warned him that he’d better take some acting lessons before he tried auditioning for a part. Bill agreed with what they said, instinctively knowing it was sound advice. That was why he’d decided to enroll in the drama class at Pierce College.
For our first assignment, our professor, Eugene Dow, teamed us with another actor then gave each twosome a scene to first learn, then rehearse, and eventually perform before the other members of the class. My scene, which I shared with a pleasant, 19-year-old actress, was from “Bus Stop.” A wonderful Broadway play that went on to become a box-office hit starring Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe.
Bill and his partner, another young woman with a lot of talent, were given a scene from “Of Mice and Men.” The John Steinbeck classic had been performed on screen in 1939 by Betty Field and Lon Chaney, Jr.; with Lewis Milestone directing.
We were given a week to memorize our lines and rehearse. We were allowed to run through our scenes in class and after school. When the time came, it took at least a week or more for the entire group of students to set up and perform their scenes. There was time for two or three scenes during each classroom session. There were good ones; there were some bad ones; some were weak, some strong. I personally had a lot of fun portraying the innocent rodeo cowboy who falls in love with the sexy café singer, in Bus Stop.
When it came time for Bill to do his scene with his actress partner, I could see he was a little nervous. He got up and walked out in front of us with a little hesitance – but almost all actors suffer from stage fright. We all understood that, so no one said anything. The rest of the class was just as expectant as I was to see what this cowboy from Utah had in him.
The lights came up and the scene began. For a few minutes Bill was doing a great job with his interpretation of Lenny, the mentally-handicapped giant who misinterprets his boss’s wife’s words and grabs at her hair when told he could just touch it. We were all really getting into the scene when Bill missed a line. He stopped; he couldn’t remember. His partner fed him the words with a frown. The scene continued. Then it happened again – and again – and again. Finally the annoyed actress threw up her hands in frustration. The audience laughed; they couldn’t help it. But I could see it wasn’t that funny for Bill. He turned slowly, then silently walked out the back door.
I saw him after class, all alone, sitting beside a tree. He was toying with a three-foot rope. One end had been knotted into a ball and Bill was twirling the line into a loop while at the same time trying to make the knotted end go through the loop’s circumference. I had seen James Dean do the same trick in the movie, “Giant,” several years earlier. I sauntered over, stopping beside him. At the same time the balled end went right through the loop’s opening, tying the rest of the rope into a knot. He looked up. “I was pretty damn bad, wasn’t I?” It sounded more like a statement that a question. I could see by the look in his eyes he wasn’t feeling that great about himself. “I reckon I’ll be packin’ it up and headin’ home to Utah.” Then he mumbled, “I ain’t no actor … that’s for sure.”
I knelt down beside him. “You didn’t do anything any other actor hasn’t done, Bill. Everyone forgets their lines once in a while. Every actor experiences stage-fright, to some extent.”
“But I was just downright bad,” he said again. “I’m gonna’ give it all up before I make a bigger fool of myself.”
“Can you teach me how to do that? I asked.
He looked over at me curiously. “Teach you how to do what?
“That rope trick you just did. I saw it once in a movie and I’ve always wanted to learn how to do it.”
He picked himself up off the ground, brushed at his Levis, then said: “Hell, I can do you one better, Pardner. I’ll teach you how to rope and tie a calf. How about that?”
Now I’d ridden a few horses over the years; and I’d worked as a stuntman at a Western amusement venue called Corriganville a few years earlier; I was pretty good with a shootin’ iron, too, thanks to a friend who was a professional; I even knew some chords on the guitar, and could warble a sweet-sounding cowboy ballad if I were so inclined. But never in my young life, ever, had I learned how to throw a lariat loop and tie a calf.
“Wow. Thanks, Bill,’ I said, “that’d be great if you’d teach me how.” I cocked my head. There was something still puzzling me. “But where are we going to find any calves to rope around here?”
“Hey, Pard,” he chuckled. “This here’s an aggie college. Ain’t you ever been out to the back forty yet?”’
I shook my head. All I’d ever seen of the Pierce campus was the parking lot, the bungalows used as classrooms, the gymnasium, and the athletic field.
“C’mon,” said Bill, pulling me by the arm. “Lemme’ show ya.’”
The back forty, as Bill called it, was on the other side of the campus, beyond where I was used to hanging out. At first glimpse, it looked like a regular farm or ranch to me. There were cow barns, sheep barns, hog pens, chicken coops, horse corrals, a small arena, and several cattle holding pens. “Wow! Everything a cowboy needs to feel at home,” I said out loud, as we walked down a small incline that led to one of the fenced enclosures where seven or eight young yearlings were huddled. Bill smiled; then he walked over to a dilapidated pickup truck where he retrieved a coiled rope from a work box wedged in behind the cab. After that, he motioned for me to follow him.
When we entered the pen, I noticed a couple of the calves were giving us curious looks. “They know me,” said Bill. “I come down here at least once or twice a day so I can keep in practice.” While he talked, he was building a loop. When he was pleased with the size of it, he whirled the loop over his head one time then tossed it gently over the nearest maverick’s head. The calf didn’t seem to be offended; in fact, it made a low mooing sound.
Bill walked over to the animal and removed the rope with care. As he turned back in my direction, he said, “You think you’re ready to try it?”
I nodded. “Sure, why not.”
I tried to do what I’d seen him do by tossing the rope at the same calf he had. The stubborn maverick dodged my throw and the loop thudded into the dirt in front of us. Bill laughed so hard I thought he’d burst. A short coughing bout put an end to his amusement. “Sorry,” he said. He took the rope from me and began coiling it. “Maybe it’s best if I give you a couple more pointers before you go trying that again. And you, too,” he barked, turning to the calf. “You be nice to my friend here … he ain’t going to hurt you none … he just wants to put a rope around your neck.”
Bill and I spent every day down at the corrals. While we roped, or while I tried to, we talked about a number of things. When he told me about his growing up in the wilds of Utah, I countered with stories of my being brought up around Hollywood studios, and my love for all things Western. Sometimes we’d go out for lunch or coffee in that old truck of his; other times I’d drive. Wherever we were we talked – mostly about acting. During this entire period, Bill remained in our drama class. He tried again, and again, and eventually Bill learned how to learn his lines. Otherwise, Bill was a natural – in a Slim Pickens sort of way. Our instructor, the other class members, and me, would sit in eager anticipation every time Bill was on the stage.
The school year finally came to an end. When we all said our goodbyes, I had a special one for Bill. He said he was going back to Utah to get his things together. Then he wanted to come back and make Hollywood his home. “I know I can be an actor now,” he said to me. “I just had to learn a few of the damn basics.”
We shook hands. Then he walked away slowly over to his pickup truck and climbed into the cab. As he closed the rickety old door and started the engine, he turned, and like a cowboy hero in an old B-Western, he smiled then waved to me. Then he drove off and I never saw him again …
…until, ten years later, when I drove out to Newhall to visit a good friend and happened to drive by a ranch location where a movie company was filming a modern Western of some sort. Since I knew no one on that particular show, I stood in the background, behind some ropes that had been put there by the local police to keep curious onlookers away from the set. While I watched, I saw a very familiar rotund cowboy sitting on a corral fence. He was shooting the bull with a bunch of other cowboys and actors. He wore a straw Stetson and had a handlebar mustache. Had I been closer, I’m sure I would have seen that he was wearing a pair of steel-rimmed glasses. Then, as one of the movie company’s drivers slowed his car to a stop next to me while a cop dropped the rope so he could get through the barrier, I stooped down and asked him if the heavy set cowboy sitting over there on the fence happened to be named Bill.
“Naw,” he answered, “that guy has a funny name.” He thought for a long moment, then said: “I think it’s Wilbert … or Wilford … yeah, that’s it … Wilford. He’s Wilford Brimley, and he’s a damn good actor. Everyone I know on this show’s been saying ol’ Wilford’s on his way to a really big career in the movie business.”