I Was Ready For My Big Moment

by James Scott Bell

Embed from Getty Images

Earle Hyman

Last week we lost a very dear man. Earle Hyman was known to most people as Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show. But he was so much more. An accomplished stage actor, he was one of the great Othellos.

I know because I got to watch him play the role night after night.

I was a young and hungry actor, freshly arrived in New York City and living at The Leo House on West 23d. Across the street at that time was the Roundabout Theater. I walked over there one day and asked for a job. I got one, pushing around scenery for the current production, Shaw’s You Never Can Tell.

As part of the deal, I got to audition for their upcoming production of Othello.

JSB in his triumphant role as Attendant in Othello.

And I got the part! My first paid acting role! As … Attendant. No lines, but I didn’t care. I was doing Shakespeare Off-Broadway, in tights and everything!

Earle Hyman was Othello. Also in the cast was a young Powers Boothe as Roderigo.

And so we began rehearsals. I loved every minute of it, even though my part was just walking on, standing, and walking off. But when I was off, I’d listen. I’d listen to how Earle and Nick Kepros (Iago) did Shakespeare. Iago has some of the best lines in the entire canon, and I determined to play that role someday.

In fact, one night before the show I was sitting backstage with Earle. He was so generous to the young actors, down-to-earth and always willing to give advice. I mentioned I wanted to play Iago someday, and he said, “You’re perfect for it!”

“I am?” I said, wondering if some nefarious part of my personality had leaked out.

“Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.) He explained, “Othello calls him ‘honest, honest Iago.’ It’s wrong to play the part as an obvious villain.”

I then breezily but sincerely told him I was going to mount a production of Othello someday and play Iago, and that I wanted him to play the lead.

“I’ll do it!” he said.

A lovely man.

So the show opened and was well received by the Times. I continued to listen. I was something of a voice impersonator in those days. I’d crack up the cast by doing imitations of the various actors.

Then one night it happened. My big moment.

Now, to fully appreciate what I’m about to relate it is necessary that you know the classic film All About Eve. If you have not seen it and wish to be spared knowing the plot twist, you might want to skip to the last paragraphs of this post.

In brief, All About Eve is the story of a theater diva named Margo Channing (Bette Davis). A devoted young fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) comes to her and pours out her heart about loving the theater and idolizing Margo. This gets her a job as Margo’s assistant.

What we come to learn is that Eve Harrington has only one thought in mind—to displace Margo as the star of a new hit play. She underhandedly snags the understudy role. And then she sets in motion an elaborate scheme so Margo will be unable to make curtain one night.

Eve is a sensation, and from there turns her back on everyone who’s helped her as she ascends the stairway to stardom.

Back to Othello. One night, about an hour and half before curtain, a call comes in from the actor playing Montano—a minor role, but with significant lines. He was stuck in Brooklyn and wouldn’t be able to make the show. I can’t remember why, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it.

The stage manager was in a panic. There were no understudies. Then someone told him, “Jim knows the part. He knows all the parts.”

The stage manager rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Do you? Do you really know the part?”

“What from the cape can you discern at sea?” I said, quoting Montano’s first line.

“You’re going on!”

On! Me! I was giddy as he spent twenty minutes with me on the stage, walking me through the blocking. I only half listened, for my other half was loop-quoting the Bard: “Yet heavens have glory for this victory!”

Then I was dismissed to go get ready for the performance.

As I entered the dressing room, everyone was already putting on makeup or getting into costume. The moment I appeared our Iago, Nick Kepros, in a voice dripping with droll amusement and loud enough for all to hear, said, “Well, well, if it isn’t Eve Harrington!”

The room exploded in laughter. It was the perfect line, brilliantly delivered.

So on I went.

Nailed it!

Though it was one night only and did not catapult me to stardom, it was supremely satisfying. I had spoken Shakespeare on a stage in New York! And received warm congratulations from the cast, including Mr. Earle Hyman.

All that to say, writer, be ready. The old saw about luck being the intersection of preparation and opportunity applies.

Be ready when you read. When you come across a passage that moves you or compels you to turn the page, ask yourself why that is so. Mark up the book with notes.

Be ready when you write. Listen to your book and the characters as they take on life. What are they telling you that you didn’t know before?

Be ready when you edit. By studying the craft and having tools that actually work, you become more adept at creatively fixing your manuscript.

Be ready with your elevator pitch. If anyone asks you what your book is about, you should be able to tell them in thirty seconds, and in a way that makes their eyes light up. (An elevator pitch formula may be found here.)

Do all that and you know what you’ll be ready for next? To “put money in thy purse!” (Iago, Act I, Scene 3.)

So what serendipitous event has happened in your own life? Were you ready for it?

25 thoughts on “I Was Ready For My Big Moment

  1. I love this.

    When I learn a scene, I learn the whole scene (everyone’s lines) just on case. Right now I’m in a show I did a couple of years ago (Christmas Belles) about three sisters, but I’m playing a different sister. The lines are there, I just have to remember who I am this time.

  2. Keeping to my writing moments, which have never been particularly “big” – sometimes it helps to not know (not to know?) you’re in the middle of one. I was at a conference chatting while waiting for the elevator (cliche, but true) and the gentleman asked me about my book, which is normal conference conversation. I told him, he handed me his business card and said to come up to the pitch room the next day to talk. That turned into my first print publication. Not a whole lot came of it, but I think my “pitch” was all the better for not being nervous because I had no clue I was speaking to an editor.

    My other “big” moment was being in the right place and reading an email that said Barnes & Noble was opening a “Nook First” program to indie authors. I’d met the contact person at a conference, shot off an email, and was accepted into the program, which at that time was an immense boost to authors. I had to pay back most of my social security that year. But that was sheer timing–I had a new book ready to go, and it made the cut.

  3. Theatre is a great analogy. As writers, we play all the parts and are always ready to step onstage when summoned, although some of my characters tend to trip over the scenery!

    While you were waiting in the wings, you did your homework, putting yourself in a position for opportunity to find you. The harder one works, the luckier one gets.

    For many years, I’ve been on the planning committee for the Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana. Through that work, I’ve met many great authors, agents, and editors who gave me valuable professional criticism that improved my writing. Thanks to a referral from a then-senior Harper Collins editor, a leading agent took me on.

    When a widely published author couldn’t fulfill a deadline, she recommended me (then w/o a single clip to my name) to her editor, launching me on an unexpected journey into writing articles and becoming a magazine columnist.

    Thanks to a casual offline discussion with Kathryn Lilley, I was given the incredible opportunity to write guest posts for my favorite blog.

    As Mr. Hyman mentored you, you continue to mentor all of us. Thanks, Jim!

  4. I have no elevator pitch ready because I am a beginner, nothing published (just magazine articles, not fictional works I mean). After reading this, I’m thinking maybe I should have a blurb ready to roll of my tongue!

    Pretty cool theatre story, by the way. I almost teared up!

    • Priscilla, a good elevator pitch is not just for those chance meetings. It is also a tremendous way for you to know how marketable your concept is, and how solid your structure, before you start writing. I always develop a pitch before I begin the long journey to first draft.

      Glad to have you here. Keep writing!

  5. I’ve wondered, in my later years, if I might have had a life in film or television acting. When I was about five or six, there were open auditions here in Phoenix for a movie to be shot locally. I along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, showed up for the audition. (Actually, I suppose, I didn’t SHOW up. I was driven by my parents.) Anyway, as I was going through the process and it came my turn for a quick interview and the reading of a line, the guy–that’s as technical as I can get for what to call the guy sitting at the table along with others and who says things and writes things–asked me to read the line. (Yes, I could read at five years old.) “Okay,” the guy said, “read this next one.” I did. He wrote something on something. He smiled at me and looked at my mother. “See the young lady just beside the door.”

    We saw the young lady. She handed my mother a sheet of paper, said things to her. The young lady smiled and me and shook my hand. Perhaps it was the first handshake from an adult who wasn’t my grandma, my aunts or uncles, or someone at church.

    I got the little part–sounds as if I was searching through an automobile junk yard for a carburetor for a 57 Chevy–and showed up at the date and time. The shoot lasted three days–Arizona had no laws to protect child actors in those days. I was hungry, thirsty most of the time, and tired and cranky. (I’d check with my wife, but I may still be all of those.)

    Eventually, the film was released. No premiere, unless you count popcorn, Cokes, and candy from the snack bar with my friend Helen Rae, whom I took to see the film at The Palms Theater. We watched for me. “There you are,” Helen Rae said. We listened for me. I spoke my line. I got a reaction from the audience, chuckles and at least one cough.

    The strange thing is, after that, I kept getting calls to appear on this local TV show, that little part with the Phoenix Civic Light Opera Company. And, then, the big role, three nights as crib angel on the right in the Christmas pageant of the Phoenix Indian School. That led to a call from the producer of an olde tyme local show, Arizona Highways, where I was cast as a Navajo boy petting a lamb. The hostess of the show encouraged my parents to get representation for me–my parents saw that as a waste of time and money. And, they were the ones who were responsible for getting me from gig (paid or not) to gig. And there was a lot of or not in Phoenix, Arizona in the late 40s and early 50s.

    Who knows whether or not I might have been able to turn all of that into something. The problem was–a problem I didn’t know even existed–was that my parents apparently didn’t see what was going on, and I certain didn’t really realize what was going on. My Dad was a librarian/teacher whose idea of success was getting a college degree and spending the rest of your life doing whatever the degree entailed. My mother was a nurse. Although my Dad wanted to write and act, somehow he missed seeing those events in my life. But neither one of them had a creative spirit.

    So, whatever I may or may not have missed out on in The Business, I’ll never know. If I’d had representation, could I have been The Beaver (the one it was left to)? Could I have beaten out Johnny Crawford for the role of Mark McCain? Could I have gotten roles in Los Angeles as a child and then gone through that child actors’ horror of not being able to work anymore after the age of 13?

    Well, who knows? And frankly, who cares? The spirit of Thespis did not call me further than the city limits of Phoenix. But then, Thespis never got to hit a double and win the game while his friends cheered him on.

    • Well, first off, Jim, anyone who cites Thespis is aces in my book. Good reference.

      And yes, Hollywood is littered with the tragic adulthoods of former child stars. Which is why Paul Petersen (from the old Donna Reed Show) started an organization to help that ilk.

      Maybe your dad was right after all. “Father Knows Best.”

  6. Excellent advice. And man, did you ever rock those tights!

    BTW, I’m still cackling at this:

    ““Oh, yes,” Earle said. “You have an open, honest face.” (This, mind you, was well before I went to law school.)”

    Love it!

  7. Love it. Elevator pitch. A two word description of the idea I have tried to remind myself every time I wonder “what’s the point?” The point is, success is being prepared when opportunity arrises. And, to add to that, success is waiting for you just outside of your comfort zone!

  8. Inspiring. Post an announcement when you get that Iago role. From your photo here, it looks like your face still qualifies.

  9. I was once mistaken for Chip Douglas (“My Three Sons”) on the boardwalk at Wildwood, NJ. I tried, but I couldn’t parlay that into a date with the girl who’d made the mistake. So much for having one teed up for you then whiffing on the shot. This isn’t, of course, to minimize these wonderful experiences you and your commenters have shared. One would agree that Mr. Earle Hyman was a class act. I’m an older guy still looking for the brass ring with his novels. Got one coming out in June 2018, an “off Broadway” number, as in it’s from a smaller press. But maybe, just maybe… Nicely done, all.

    • Part of being ready, Chris, is to keep punching. There’s an old boxing axiom that you always have that “puncher’s chance” for the knockout if you keep the gloves flying. Good luck with your novel!

  10. Loved this story, Jim! Persistence wins again.

    About a month ago, the most amazing group of writers invited me to become a Kill Zone member. 😉 Several months prior, I was invited to write in the Kindle Worlds. Both invitations have made my year all the more rewarding. Was I ready? Yes! I think. I hope. But it still caught me off-guard.

    • It happened to me the same way, Sue. When I first discovered the Zone I hung out in the comments a lot. I had no blog presence on the net and wasn’t looking forward to going solo … and then by golly I was invited to join the regulars. Once a week posting was perfect for me. And has been for nearly 8 years.

  11. Jim, I always find great information from your posts. I’m curious. You wanted to be an actor in your early career and then succeeded in becoming an author of many writing self-help books as well as thrillers. What prompted you to go to law school? I’m a former HR professional, and I’ve always asked why folks choose a career or does the career choose them?
    I’m looking forward to your future posts.

    • Frances, I met and married an actress … and I figured one steady income was a necessity. Thus, law school. I practiced for several years, then started my quest to write fiction. Eventually I was able to write full time. I miss going to court (that’s the actor part of me, still in there!) but writing was always my first love. I had to figure out how to do it, and when things started falling into place I began to teach.

Comments are closed.