Chuck Saucier is on the phone. That’s no surprise–he’s a talent agent with a stable of Chicago actors hot for commercial work; he’s always on the phone. He doesn’t take lunch. He doesn’t go out to a gym. Sitting at his desk at Jefferson & Associates, located in the Newberry Plaza Building, he’s invariably got the receiver cradled on his shoulder and his lips pressed to the mouthpiece.
“It’s Chuck,” he says one afternoon to a woman taking a message for one of his actors. “I’m great, thanks. . . . Tell your friend and mine that he’s got an audition on Monday at 3:30, for Daniel Stern for Rookie of the Year. . . . Yeah, Daniel Stern the actor, ‘cept he’s directing this one. . . . See ya.”
Saucier, who resembles the late Raymond Massey and speaks with a faint southern drawl, has his back to the window. His white laminate desk is clear of paper and paraphernalia, and the only decorations in the office are photographs: a wall of two dozen publicity stills of actors he represents and a group shot of the clients on Jefferson’s baseball team, Saucier’s horseflesh. In a few years he expects to ride them–or at least some of them–to financial gain.
“Hey, Chuck,” says a voice, and before Saucier can look up one of his actors, Scott Haven, is sitting in the chair before him. A 31-year-old with a name like some old matinee idol, Haven stands six-foot-two and has a mane of reddish blond hair. He’s wearing a San Francisco Giants hat, sweatpants, a purple muscle shirt, and an off-white starter jacket–an outfit geared to an audition he’s having soon for a part in a commercial as a basketball player. A strap around the back of his neck is supposed to keep his clunky horn-rimmed glasses in place during lay-ups.
“Do you ever wear contacts?” Saucier asks, cocking a critical eye at Haven’s glasses.
“I had a pair once, but they got stuck back behind my eyeballs,” says Haven.
“But that was once,” says Saucier. “You really ought to get contacts. Really.”
Haven is not interested. He just got paid $3,810 for a Hamburger Helper commercial he filmed three months ago, playing a young dad as he often does, and he’s flying high. Unsnapping his briefcase, Haven writes Saucier a check for the agent’s cut of the fee–the standard 10 percent–and hands it across the desk.
There are hundreds of Scott Havens in Chicago, actors who aren’t quite obscure yet are far from famous. They’re engaged in an endless, crazy hustle to make a living–and perhaps someday land their names on a movie marquee or in the over-the-title credits of a sitcom. In part their prospects depend on people like Saucier, who dish out advice, arrange auditions, tout people’s talents, and try to get them the best possible rates. But more depends on the actor himself.
“It’s hard being an actor, to get rejected, rejected, and rejected again,” says agent Elizabeth Geddes. “Constantly an actor has to go back to that place that says ‘I trust my talent,’ get filled up, and go on again. That’s not easy. This is a competitive business, and you don’t stay in it long unless you have chops, or balls.”
Haven says he hates doing commercials. “You’re not acting, you’re modeling,” he says. He prides himself on the theater company he and some friends have formed, Eclipse, and he doesn’t hold a day job, so commercial and film work is his sole source of income; he can’t be too condemning. Then, too, the on-camera work’s his best shot at becoming a star. At an age when many of his peers have established careers and are putting down roots, Haven is downing teriyaki-flavored Hamburger Helper hoping to become the next William Hurt.
After meeting with Saucier, Haven walks a few steps to a soundproof room, where he’ll record an audition tape for two radio voice-over roles. Stephanie Salzman, a Jefferson assistant, helps Haven rehearse the first bit, a holiday spot for the Famous-Barr Company, a department store chain based in Saint Louis. “That’s Oh-ster, not Ah-ster,” says Stephanie. Chastened, Haven puts on a pair of earphones and proceeds.
“No matter how good you wrap presents, soap-on-a-rope is still soap-on-a-rope,” he intones, reading from a sheet of fax paper. “Fruitcake is still fruitcake. Know what I mean? That’s why, this year, I’m shopping at Famous-Barr. At Famous, I get a Tefal Juice Master for just $79. An Oster Kitchen Center for only $199.99. Or a Braun Espresso/Cappuccino maker, plus a free frothing pitcher, for only $99. And the best news is, Famous’ll wrap everything for me. Yep, this year I’m getting all my presents at Famous-Barr. And, who knows, I might even get something for somebody else.”
“That’s good,” says Salzman, and Haven moves on to a script for Travelodge. “In the unlikely event that there’s something wrong with your room at Travelodge,” says Haven, “tell us, and we’ll make it right. Because the people at Travelodge want to do whatever they can to make sure you enjoy your stay.” Salzman frowns. “Say it like you’re a golf announcer,” she suggests, and Haven lowers his baritone for a second take.
Once he’s done, Haven sticks his head in the door of Saucier’s office. “Hey, buddy, thank God for Hamburger Helper,” he says to Saucier, who’s on the phone again. “Catch you later.”
Outside, Haven hops a cab for the nearby offices of Jane Heitz Casting, site of the basketball audition. Heitz Casting has been hired to screen candidates for a commercial touting Wheaties Honey Gold. In the waiting room Haven runs into Bob Mohler, a member of his theater company and fellow Saucier client, and a curly-haired actor named Paul White. White tells Haven about the bit part he had in the movie Hoffa, partially filmed in Chicago last summer. “I was a striker,” he says.
“Great, great,” says Haven as he sheds his sweatpants to reveal a pair of athletic shorts.
“So what’s going on with you?” asks White.
“Our theater company is coming together,” says Haven. “Watch for it. We have our own space in Bucktown. It’s pretty cool.”
“Coolness,” says White.
A Jane Heitz assistant calls Haven’s name and conducts him into a room off the waiting area. Normally before an audition Haven would have picked up pages of the script he’ll be reading–called “sides”–from Saucier, but the Heitz audition doesn’t require such preparation. The assistant asks Haven to pretend to do a couple lay-ups in the corner of the room. “Do you mind if I leave my glasses on, so I can see?” Haven asks. The assistant nods, a video camera starts to run, and Haven takes two proficient shots into the intersection of two walls.
“OK, great,” says the assistant. “Now we’re going to do a bite and smile”–shorthand for taking a mouthful of some product, then beaming into the camera. “Take a spoonful of the Wheaties, then say, ‘That’s the stuff,'” she says. After one take, she tells Haven to do it again but to sound winded, like after a stiff game. “Now let’s do another one,” she says, “except make it smaller.” On the final take Haven softens his voice.
Haven joins Mohler on the stairs. “All this is so stupid,” says Mohler, “except for the fact that you can make $20,000 off a commercial.” Haven nods. “This has nothing whatever to do with being an actor,” he says, “and I am an actor.”
Haven grew up in Laguna Beach, California, the youngest child of a school principal and his wife, now an insurance financial coordinator; they divorced when Scott was nearly grown. As a kid Scott showed no interest in theater. He was a jock. In high school he lettered in baseball and basketball and was the football quarterback. But for his senior year, much to his parents’ surprise, he applied to become an exchange student in Kenya.
In Kenya he lived in an area outside Nairobi; his sponsor was a white Rhodesian woman. “She was a fundamentalist Christian who believed God wanted her to raise children,” says Haven, “and so she had adopted refuge kids from throughout east Africa. I had 18 brothers and sisters. I was the only white kid in the high school I went to. Laguna Beach was pretty conservative, and here I was experiencing pain and suffering, seeing riots and people dying.”
When he returned to Laguna Beach, anticipating a career as a diplomat, his personality had changed. “He’d turned very liberal,” recalls Katie Haven, his mother. “He didn’t know why people had to have so many things. He told me we ought to be growing our own vegetables.” During the same period he competed on Wheel of Fortune; a two-day stint won him a trip to Tahiti and a gift certificate from Gucci–he bought a hat, a gold chain, an elephant spittoon, and the briefcase he continues to carry.
In his sophomore year at the University of California at San Diego Haven took a beginning acting class and loved it. “He was hooked,” says his mother. Shortly afterward he was cast in a college show called Tuesday, in which seven actors rendered 70 characters in 70 minutes. “The response we got caused something in me to click,” he says. “I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like I was playing baseball again, hitting out a solid triple–that was the level of excitement. For the next few years I did show after show after show, and that still wasn’t enough.” In 1982 he led a group of students in mounting an undergraduate theater festival.
He left UC-San Diego, two classes short of graduation, to follow one of his professors to San Francisco, where the professor was directing summer Shakespeare in Golden Gate Park. Haven stayed on there doing theater and working as the overnight clerk and bookkeeper at a hotel and imagining the world for himself. Once, while visiting Los Angeles, he made the rounds of movie-town agents and was disappointed that none wanted to represent him. Undaunted, he strolled down the Hollywood Walk of Fame and visualized his own star in the pavement.
“Back in San Francisco, though, everything turned sour,” he says. “I didn’t have an agent. There was no work.” He became a manager at Kinko’s and helped his girlfriend research her PhD thesis in evolution ecology.
“It wasn’t long before I had the itch to act again,” he says. He enrolled at the University of California at Davis, where his girlfriend was going, and on his way to earning a drama degree at last he became a star in all the UC-Davis plays. Haven’s relationship, which he terms “a common-law marriage,” did not survive his move here to study for a master’s in acting at DePaul University.
During his first year at DePaul, Haven interned as an assistant with Jane Alderman, a casting director with offices in the Loop. Alderman started out as an actress in New York. “Robert Redford, Michele Lee, Faye Dunaway, and I were all young nobodies together,” she recalls; her highest-profile acting job came when she played a friend of Mary Tyler Moore in Redford’s Ordinary People, shot in Lake Forest. In 1980, around the time of her divorce from actor and onetime Channel Two weatherman Tom Alderman, Jane launched her casting agency with a $500 loan from an agent friend in New York.
Since then she’s cast television series, made-for-TV movies, and feature films, sometimes as the main agent but mostly as the secondary agent, filling nonstarring roles with local talent. A slim woman in her 50s, Alderman teaches auditioning at DePaul, goes to theater five times a week (“or until I can’t stand it anymore”), and has an amazing recall for actors. She says she can conjure up the faces of 4,000 thespians, mainly Chicagoans, in seconds.
“I truly love actors, probably more than is normal,” says Alderman. “I’m very childish, and they are too. I want to support them because I know what they’re like and what their struggle is. When I hear anyone putting an actor down, no matter who it is, I go ballistic. I can’t stand it.”
“I would go down to Jane’s office, set up auditions, write memos, do phone stuff,” says Haven of his job with Alderman. At first she considered Haven only as her assistant, but one day she had a word with him. “Scott, you’re 30 years old,” she said. “You’re a good actor. What are you still doing in school? You’re the perfect age now. Get going.”
In May 1991 Haven was playing in a DePaul production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan at the Blackstone Theatre when Alderman came backstage and brought Chuck Saucier with her. “Could you come to my office?” Saucier asked. Haven had previously tried to get a couple other agencies to represent him, but they weren’t interested. He didn’t recognize Saucier’s name, but he did stop by. “I thought he’d get me a little summer work,” Haven says.
In 1980 Saucier, a native of Mississippi, was the concierge at the Executive House hotel when, like Haven, he went to work for Alderman. She was then running her fledgling agency from her home. “I learned so much from Jane,” says Saucier. He also loved his assignments, casting roles for Bad Boys, a prison film with a young Sean Penn, and helping Broadway impresario Hal Prince search for singers. Ultimately, though, he left to earn more money.
By 1983 he was an on-camera agent for the A-Plus Talent Agency; among his clients were a girl named Tempestt Bledsoe and PBS’s “Frugal Gourmet,” Jeff Smith. In 1984 Bledsoe, who was all of 11, entered a national child search for a new show being crafted for Bill Cosby. Says Saucier, “It came down to Tempestt and a little boy. The boy caught the flu on the way out to California. I’m not saying that’s why Tempestt landed The Cosby Show, but it didn’t hurt.” Bledsoe was cast as a Cosby daughter, and Saucier followed to New York, representing her at the child-oriented Carson Adler Agency; he also retained Smith as a client. Sharon Cooper, then the owner of A-Plus, continued to take a cut of Bledsoe’s income, according to Saucier, yet Cooper and her former employee did not part friends. “I really have nothing to say about Chuck Saucier,” says Cooper now. “This is not worth discussing.”
That period was a lucrative one for Saucier–in addition to Smith and Bledsoe he had a couple young clients working in soap operas–but the demands on him became onerous, especially in Bledsoe’s case. “With a child star, you’re fielding questions every day,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe how many calls you get for charity events. It’s hard for a kid like this to have any semblance of normality. It got to the point of making sure there wasn’t another kid in the car in the morning so [Tempestt] could rest on the way to the studio.” Meanwhile Smith was becoming a luminary, and though Saucier was dealing only with the actor’s endorsements and personal appearances and not with his books or the show, “it was all so involved,” he complains.
The road grew even bumpier. Saucier had a falling-out with Bledsoe’s mother, and he and Smith ran into difficulties. “In this business you find people that you work with for a time, and then you don’t,” says Smith. “Things change, you change. Chuck’s a good fellow, but he stopped taking my calls.” According to Saucier, the resulting split-up was “as friendly as any parting with Mr. Smith can be. I came away relatively unscathed.”
Saucier also didn’t get along with Nancy Carson, an owner of Carson Adler. “We were oil and water,” says Saucier. “I never liked Nancy Carson from the first day I walked in there. It was five years of pure hell.” For her part, Carson says Saucier was egotistical and had difficulty “being a team player. This wasn’t a happy relationship. We let him go.”
“It was a mutual parting of the ways,” says Saucier. “There came a time when I decided I couldn’t be an agent anymore. I was totally burned-out.” Anyway, he says, business had fallen off during the 21-week Writers Guild of America strike in 1988. After leaving Carson Adler he tried to get a Harvard student’s screenplay produced, but he was unsuccessful. He toyed with the idea of working as an agent in Los Angeles, but he felt the business there was too feverish and anxiety producing. “And I was too old to break in,” he says. Returning to Chicago, he was hired as an agent by Colleen Gallagher on Alderman’s recommendation.
He lasted three months at Gallagher’s agency, Ferrer Talent. He left, Saucier says, “because they didn’t have any money and couldn’t cash my paychecks.” In fact at least six Ferrer actors had griped to the Illinois Department of Labor about not being paid, and when Saucier filed a complaint over his nonpayment the department scheduled a hearing on his charges. In the end Saucier failed to show up–he’d broken his foot, he says, and he lacked proof that Gallagher’s check would have bounced. Labor department records show that Gallagher made good on paying her actors.
Gallagher says she knows nothing about the complaints by her actors at that time, and she denies that Saucier went unpaid: “That is absolutely untrue and scandalous. I wouldn’t pay myself before I wouldn’t pay my staff. Actually, I don’t know why Chuck left. I was quite shocked when he called up and said he was at Jefferson. The clients he’d signed left with him, but that’s par for the course.”
Saucier isn’t eager to talk about his erratic career, contending that it must be seen in perspective. “There’s constant turnaround in this business,” he says. “All these personality things go on. We gossip all the time and air our dirty laundry in public.” At age 40 he’s poised to begin again, but in a field that over the last decade has become increasingly pressured and competitive.
Filmmakers began to come to Illinois to shoot movies on location in the late 1970s. Producers were eager to give their works an authentic urban air and discovered they could do so cheaply here; moreover they were being courted by the newly created Illinois Film Office (the brainchild of Tom Alderman when he was communications director for Governor Dan Walker). At the same time the local theater community, led by the likes of Steppenwolf, Wisdom Bridge, Victory Gardens, and Remains, began to flower. That provided a pool of competent, even gifted actors from which to cast and lured other actors to the city, providing an ever larger pool. Of course the flood of actors also made for increased competition.
In 1991, 28 feature films, made-for-TV movies, and pilots were shot in Chicago, according to film-office managing director Suzy Kellett; they pumped $80 million into the local economy, a record high. Though Kellett says the year was unusually active because labor problems in New York hobbled location shooting there, 1992 has seen its share of productions. In addition, the local expenditure on commercials and corporate video now runs to $300 million annually, according to Ruth Ratny, editor of Screen magazine.
It’s no accident that Chicago has turned into a port of entry for aspiring actors. “It used to be that if you were an actor graduating from SMU you went to New York,” reflects agent Harrise Davidson. “Now you go to Chicago. It’s a warmer environment, there’s a fertile theater scene and access to agents, and at some point you can move to New York or the coast because you worked here.” Since 1976 the Chicago membership of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has doubled; the two unions together have nearly 6,000 members here. And of course that figure doesn’t include the actors who aren’t union members.
As actors have proliferated, so have agents. There were only a handful of talent reps when Saucier started out, but now there are two dozen franchised by the joint Chicago office of SAG and AFTRA. The business largely revolves around on-camera and voice-over work, though sufficiently high paying theater parts may be negotiated by an agent. Agents handle people for as long as they’re in Chicago; when and if they break for Los Angeles the agents usually set them up with a west-coast counterpart and arrange to take a percentage of future bookings, at least for a time.
The more established agents are savvy and aggressive, and they all have coups to boast of. Agent Shirley Hamilton signed Robert Urich when he was a time salesman at WGN TV and launched Shelley Long as a Homemakers spokesman when she was in the Second City ensemble. Fred Savage and John Mahoney came up through Emilia Lorence. Many luminaries from the last generation–Dennis Farina, Gary Cole, Bill Petersen, and Joan and John Cusack–rose through the Geddes Agency, operated by Ann Geddes (whose offices are in LA) and Elizabeth Geddes; recently a large role in Rookie of the Year, the Daniel Stern film recently shot here, went to Geddes client Amy Morton.
Harrise Davidson discovered Virginia Madsen in an acting class, Lara Flynn Boyle in high school, and Marlee Matlin in a little Rogers Park theater, shepherding her directly into Children of a Lesser God opposite William Hurt. “I can tell the difference between a fair actor, a good actor, and a magnificent one, and it doesn’t take me but a minute,” says Davidson, who oversees ten agents at her Loop office. Davidson likens deal making to a stiff round of cards, “and believe me I don’t like to lose,” she says. Currently she’s gloating over having signed client Tom Amandes, a veteran of bit film parts, commercials, and theater, as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, a new syndicated TV series being shot now. “That gave me quite a rush,” she says.
Pam Jefferson left the A-Plus agency to found her own shop 11 years ago (a partner bowed out after a brief period). Jefferson has specialized in voice-over work, though she’s had her on-camera coups, notably getting Jennifer Beals the female lead in Flashdance. Still, her on-camera department–usually just one person assigned that part of the business–has historically been a financial drain. She hired Saucier in April 1991 with the idea that he would turn things around. That he’s done, or so Jefferson says: “I couldn’t be more pleased. We’re breaking even with on-camera work, and we will be profitable.”
Many agents accumulate clients by getting actors to submit resumes and headshots and come in for an open call. Prospects considered promising are invited back for an interview and sometimes a monologue. But Saucier, who receives pictures from 50 aspirants a week, has no open call. Instead he relies on referrals and his own instincts. He goes to the theater about twice a week, often to see his clients perform but at the same time scouting other actors.
Often agents sign actors to exclusive contracts, but they also use actors listed with several representatives–who are “multilisted.” Saucier makes exclusive deals only. “Why should I bust my butt to get somebody seen, and then a big project comes along and another agent books the person?” he says.
At this point, between the clients Saucier brought over from Ferrer, those Jefferson already had, and those like Haven Saucier’s signed, he has a stable of about 60 people. There is some fluidity–Saucier usually loses a person every month to another agent–but for every one who leaves he hooks two newcomers. The group is fairly youthful: like Haven, most are under 40 and feel their careers are ahead of them.
They breeze in and out all day, picking up their sides, and when not there they call in to find out if anything’s cooking. “‘What’s up?’ is the expression I hate the most,” laughs Saucier. Many Jefferson actors have come to know each other through the agency’s baseball team, which plays in a theater league on Wednesday nights, then adjourns to the Southport Lanes for drinks. Matt Scharff, a DePaul University graduate with a day job as a waiter, had a long run in Six Degrees of Separation and Saucier has hopes for a Beverly Hills 90210-type project for him. Scott Denny, a senior at Northwestern University, boasts considerable classical experience. JoNelle Kennedy, an SMU graduate, has set her sights on soap opera. Donna Verouskek logged an eight-month run in The Heidi Chronicles here. When off the boards she waitresses at Bub City; she’s revered there for vampy performances as a crawfish and as Annie Oakley.
Greta Lind, a young soap-opera veteran, is playing the female lead in a football feature film, Rudy, shooting in South Bend, Indiana. But most prominent of the group is Gerry Becker, a member of the Remains Theatre who has been lucky in commercials and in movies. He was a club owner in A League of Their Own and the chief villain in an Eli Wallach-Martin Landau TV vehicle shot here a year ago. Now 41, his career lagging behind those of his old friends William Petersen and Gary Cole, Becker would like to relocate to California. “I have two children,” he says. “All I love to do is act, but this is a business. I want to make some money.”
Jefferson actors value Saucier, but not for his nurturing qualities. When he first signed with Saucier, Haven wondered whether the agent cared about him at all, Saucier gave him so little encouragement. “But after a while the thing you realize is, you’re his livelihood, too,” says Haven, “and if you don’t work he doesn’t make money. And he’s good at making you money. I’ve gotten used to him, to his being extremely sarcastic. Now, if he stroked me, I’d think something was wrong. He has this way of seeming harsh sometimes, but he’s really not.”
Indeed, Saucier often delivers blunt but much-appreciated counsel. “Chuck doesn’t bullshit you,” says Becker. “He lays it out straight.” Scharff says Saucier wisely advised him to cut his shoulder-length hair. “I thought I looked like David Cassidy,” says Scharff, “but Chuck said I looked heavy metal.” Saucier balled out Denny for blowing a Levi’s audition by misunderstanding a question, an admonishment the actor says was in order.
“I will talk to them if they’re insecure about something,” says Saucier. “But generally I don’t favor them with praise that isn’t real. They know I think they’re good because I’m their agent. I hope I’ve been in this business long enough to know what will sell, and some of these folks have the potential to make it big.”
To all appearances Saucier is trying to reap success for every one of his clients. He’s constantly in touch with local casting agents, whose job it is to fill slots in movies, commercials, and industrial videos. But with his relatively small client list Saucier can’t make much money off booking industrials, so he doesn’t try. (That’s fine by his clients. “Industrials are so cheesy,” says Scharff.) Otherwise it’s open season.
“I talk to the three Janes every day,” says Saucier, referring to the leading troika of casters: Alderman, a former acting teacher named Jane Brody, and Jane Heitz, whose metier is commercials. Saucier’s competitors say that Alderman favors Saucier, but she denies that. “He’s a good friend, but so are other agents,” she says. “I can’t favor anyone, and wouldn’t.”
Saucier also consults summaries faxed out by a Los Angeles-based company called Breakdown Services, which issues a national index of parts in movies, series, and plays and more detailed descriptions of roles in Chicago. To promote Saucier’s people, Jefferson recently produced a contemporary-sounding voice-over audiotape featuring nine young on-camera actors, including Haven, his friend Mohler, Denny, and Scharff, and sent it off to casting services and ad agencies.
When a job prospect comes up Saucier obtains the appropriate sides and makes sure his actor is prepared. Haven, for instance, frequently rehearses his sides in the voice-over room at Jefferson. If a casting director is in California, an actor will be videotaped in the role; otherwise, it’s off to an audition.
These tend to be brief–ten minutes at the outside. “I’ll be there, and the director and possibly the producer,” says Alderman of the films she helps cast. “Some directors want to shop around and see 10 or 15 actors for every role. The last three or four projects I’ve worked on, though, the directors held it to two actors for each part. The agents hate that and so do the actors, but there you are.”
If a casting agent decides on one of Saucier’s clients, he’ll haggle for the best price. His aim is to improve on the base scales dictated by the unions or to better someone’s most recent rate for a similar part, but unlike Harrise Davidson he acknowledges there are limits to what he can do. “I can play all the games I want,” he says, “but if the casting director says take it or leave it, we take it. Actors want to work, especially young ones. Anything for that credit.”
“Scott Haven is your Harrison Ford leading man,” says photographer Tom Lascher, who takes the publicity stills for all Saucier’s actors. “He’s attractive, sexy, and very, very interesting, capable of a wide emotional range.” Alderman likes to tell directors that Haven is “a young William Hurt. He couldn’t get the roles Hurt does, for heaven’s sake, because nobody’s ever heard of him, but he’s in that rough category.” Haven himself says he’s most often considered for parts as a young dad or corporate executive.
But he has definitely been busier since signing with Saucier. Haven attends auditions two or three times a week, often bumping into other actors who also fit his profile. “There is a group of three of us that always run into each other,” says Jim Krag, a tall, fair 30-year-old. “If we don’t, the casting person’s made a mistake.”
Haven’s first at bat after signing with Saucier won him the role of “reporter number two” in The Babe, the Babe Ruth biography starring John Goodman. On the set Haven was impossibly nervous, and twice he froze on his lines before delivering them correctly. “My credits were on-screen longer than I was,” he says.
His next project was a movie produced by Duea Films, an Italian company whose owners for some reason have located its U.S. branch in Davenport, Iowa. The film, destined to become a two-part miniseries on Italian TV, concerned an Italian professor who comes to America to teach summer school and falls in love with a journalism instructor and reporter for the college TV station, played by Brooke Shields. Haven played the husband of Shields’s best friend. “I was in pork bellies,” he says. The best friend was Donna Verouskek, and she and Haven drove out and back together to Davenport in her father’s Corvette.
“Brooke Shields’s mother hated me,” says Haven. “I think it was because of the piece I did for the audition.” In his monologue, from a play by a west-coast comedy writer, he was a father talking about beating up a department-store Santa Claus in front of his own son and other kids waiting in line. “She thought I lacked the compassion necessary for the film,” Haven says.
Another problem was that the actor who starred as Shields’s lover, with whom Haven and Verouskek had several scenes, spoke Italian during the scenes. “Scott and I would do these scenes with the guy, and we’d never know when he was done speaking,” recalls Verouskek. Haven and Verouskek had to take their cues from an assistant director standing on the sidelines.
Haven developed some sympathy for Brooke Shields–“she’s very sweet, but no actress”–but he never warmed to her mother. She approached Haven at a wrap-up party at a hotel penthouse in Davenport and said, “Scott, you’ll make it one day, just never do an audition like the one you did for this picture.” Haven shot back, “Well, I got the job, didn’t I?”
He has never seen the Shields movie, An American Love. The other part he got that summer was as “a party psycho in this sort of Porky’s for the yuppie generation,” as he describes it. The movie, Watch It, starred Peter Gallagher (of Sex, lies, and videotape) and hasn’t been released.
By the fall of 1991 the crush of work had grown so intense that Haven took a one-year leave from DePaul, and he has yet to return. He did a play at Bailiwick Repertory and six Sears commercials for Christmas. In 1991 Haven earned $26,000–more than twice the average wage of SAG members, according to a national union study. Some among Saucier’s clients made more, some less. In any event, Haven doesn’t require a big income; this year, although his revenues are one-quarter less, he’s surviving because his needs are simple.
He’s single, he doesn’t own a car, and his rented Lakeview studio apartment is furnished with two chairs and a queen-size futon, which he also uses as his desk. He’s tried to make the apartment seem more spacious by removing the doors to the closet, but it remains small. “When I stayed over Labor Day I had to share the bed with him,” says his mother, “and the refrigerator didn’t work.” His big expense is membership in a health club, where he works out three times a week.
This year has not yielded Haven any movie or television work to speak of. In May he and Mohler made a pilot for a show called Payback, a Candid Camera-type program intended for the Fox network. Haven and Mohler were cops helping to play a trick on several groups of paramedics summoned to a house in River Forest, supposedly to retrieve a dead body. But the corpse–really an actress–sat up and announced that she was a witness in a federal trial and needed protection and that those cops over there (Haven and Mohler) were really mafiosi. “The paramedics were scared shitless,” says Haven. “It was really cruel.” The pilot was not optioned.
In September Haven tried out for the role of an FBI agent in The Untouchables. He read in a small room for Alderman and the director of the pilot (who has since been fired). Haven did not do well. “I blew it,” he told Alderman afterward, though she is more charitable: “There were four other people we brought in, and they were just better than Scott, who was not bad.” Nonetheless Haven left dejected, knowing that winning the part might have meant a long run in the series. In November, however, Haven was called in for another Untouchables audition and got a part. “I play Patrolman O’Brien in episode four,” he says.
Basically he’s been subsisting on a diet of commercials. For two days in March he shot an ad for Miller Colder 29, a new brand of beer to be test-marketed on the west coast. In one of the five scenes shot Haven had to eat french fries with catsup–“I can’t eat catsup or pickles,” he says. The director, Peter Elliott, is a stickler for details, and he required that the scene be done over and over. “The catsup kept going in my mouth, and I gagged,” says Haven. “Finally they brought me a spittoon, and every time I ate I vomited in the spittoon.”
“The poor guy,” remarks Tom Lazarevich, an assistant director. “He’d have 30 fries in his mouth at one time, and he looked like a chipmunk. The whole thing was a little abusive, but it worked out. Scott was a real trouper.”
Haven made the ad for teriyaki-flavored Hamburger Helper last summer. “It was a bite and smile,” he says. “Me and this kid named Kevin were sitting in a kitchen, and after five takes Kevin got up and walked off the set and wouldn’t come back. His mother said he liked knock-knock jokes, so I made one up:
“‘Knock, knock,’ I said.
“‘Who’s there?’ said Kevin.
“‘Kenya bite and smile just like daddy did?'”
Kevin returned to the set, but the lights were hot and he was still cranky. Haven, in a tight shirt and tight tie, grew nauseous on hamburger and had to use a spittoon again, but after four and a half hours and 25 takes the director was satisfied.
The commercial was augmented in postproduction to include an animated Hamburger Helper hand and a product box that undergoes a high-tech metamorphosis, like the bodies in Terminator II. Scott has yet to see the ad, though it’s been on. No matter; he received a session fee of $475 plus the $3,810 payment based on a 13-week cycle of cable and regional-market residuals. Eventually he hopes to earn $10,000 from his day with Kevin eating Hamburger Helper.
Haven later lost out on Wheaties Honey Gold and on the Travelodge and Famous-Barr voice-overs. He tried out for the Young Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, but wasn’t picked. Christmas will find him pitching clothes for Sears. If you look close during some of its commercials you’ll see him gliding by as a partygoer.
“Commercials are the lifeblood of an actor, in terms of paying the rent,” says Haven, “but it’s sad we have to do them. You’re just selling yourself. You’re a piece of meat. You aren’t doing anything critically important.”
For fulfillment Haven turns to the theater. Inspired by the Lookingglass Theatre, a company composed primarily of Northwestern University graduates whose members are particularly esteemed by agents, Haven and some friends from DePaul decided to create their own troupe. About a year ago they had Trudie Kessler, a DePaul professor, give them a ten-week introduction to the techniques of Sanford Meisner, a renowned acting teacher long associated with the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. The Meisner technique, a version of the psyche-plumbing Method, is designed “to get you living truthfully based in your imagination and fantasies, rather than looking into your past,” Kessler explains. Meisner exercises involve two people tapping their emotions in a game of improvisational Ping-Pong.
“Scott in particular did some exercises that were beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” says Kessler. “His ability to believe in a given situation was extraordinary, and tremendously gutsy.”
The scene that struck Kessler most was performed one night last January between Haven and Bob Mohler in a company member’s apartment. Haven staged a ritual Kenyan suicide, to which Mohler was supposed to respond. Haven had wrapped himself in eight-foot-long pieces of fabric and placed around him an incense bowl, candles, and a box containing tobacco and cigarette papers: the idea was that he was going to kill himself with arsenic-laced cigarettes. As the exercise progressed, it took on an eerie sense of reality. “I undressed down to my underwear and started to cry and shake,” says Haven. “Bob had a hard time dealing with it all.” So did a woman in the group with whom Haven had just broken up.
“Everybody has thought about suicide,” says Haven. “I have. I’d been in this relationship, and I was very vulnerable. That contributed. It was the first time that as an actor I was truly given over to the moment. I wasn’t acting.”
The fledgling theater company has taken the name Eclipse, Haven says, “because we felt it would be great if we could surpass Steppenwolf.” The group raised some money, rented a storefront in Bucktown, and converted the space into a 50-seat black-box theater. For rehearsals they used an old Lincoln Park metal works Alderman rents for her students and sometimes loans to friends.
In October the company opened its first production, Halfway Content, a series of one-acts. In one of them Haven played the husband of a mentally ill wife, carrying the Gucci briefcase and wearing more fashionable glasses his mother had bought him. In Lanford Wilson’s “Eukiah,” he gave an electric turn as a farmhand who kills a half-wit who’s become a liability. He directed “Lynette at 3 a.m.,” a spiritual conversation between a young woman and a ghost, and “Out the Window,” which begins with a paraplegic seated atop a table and proceeds to probe the relationship between the man and his fiancee.
Opening night was packed. Alderman brought a small entourage, and Saucier and a Davidson agent attended. “It’s hot in here,” Saucier was heard to say, and he told Haven he didn’t like the southern accent he affected in “Eukiah.” But during the performance Haven heard his agent laugh a couple times, which he took as a high compliment.
In the Tribune critic Sid Smith called the evening “an enterprising debut vehicle,” though he dismissed “Eukiah” as a half-baked version of Of Mice and Men. At the tail end of his review Smith lumped Haven with two other performers who “demonstrate versatility in multiple parts.” In the Reader, Jack Helbig applauded Halfway Content, especially “Lynette” (“ably” directed by Haven) and “Eukiah” (“ably” acted by Haven and his costar).
“Scott’s a very gifted actor,” says Saucier. “He’s been places and done things, and he can tap this incredible life story that he’s had. He’s well trained and comfortable with any situation, yet so much of what happens to him depends on being in the right place at the right time. There’s really no way of telling if he’ll get that break.”
Alderman says she can count on the fingers of one hand the people she’s instinctively known would become names. She remembers acting with a young John Malkovich and Glenne Headly in Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class at the Goodman Theatre in 1979. In the play Headly was to strike Alderman with a riding crop. “She drew real blood,” Alderman says. Malkovich appeared nude onstage, and when the script called for him to urinate–a maneuver normally executed with a water bag–Malkovich really emptied his bladder. “It was a terror-hunt onstage each night,” she says. “I had never seen such actors.” Years later she had Kevin Anderson and Elizabeth Perkins as students at DePaul, “and I thought, hmm, something’s going to happen to them.” Of Scott Haven Alderman says: “He has great potential. The likelihood that he’ll make it is more than maybe, but I don’t know if I’ve seen enough of him to predict for sure.”
Out in California Haven’s mother frets over her son as he enters his 30s. She compares him to his two older sisters, who are settled now, with established careers and children. “I worry about Scott financially, and how he’s going to make a living,” says Katie Haven. “I don’t know if he’ll ever have a middle-class life, with two kids and a dog. He’s missing something perhaps. But I have to say, when I talk to him on the phone I never hear depression. He isn’t discouraged. Maybe he’s just a salmon swimming upstream.”
“I’m not out to become a star and to make a million dollars in the movies,” says Haven. “I’m past that. In reality, there are too many actors out there, and your chances of becoming truly big are about the same as winning the lottery. If you think you’re going to make it, you’re going to crash hard.”
But wouldn’t he like to become a star? “I’d love for that to happen,” he says quietly. “I do have an ego, and ambition.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.