Reaching for the Brass Ring

by James Scott Bell

In the good old days of carousels, there was a little item called the brass ring. According to one source:

Brass ring devices were introduced during the heyday of the carousel in the United States – about 1880 to 1920 – as a way of creating interest in the ride. Some rings were made of steel, some made of brass; if you grabbed the brass ring, you got a free ride.

Then the lawyers stepped in.

Today, reaching out and grabbing for the brass ring has been deemed an insurance risk, so very few carousels allow them anymore.

Ah, lawyers. But I digress.

The term has come into our language to mean gaining a prestigious outcome. “His book became a runaway bestseller. He got the brass ring!” It was also something hard to come by; most people missed the brass ring…and some fell off their wooden horse trying to grab it.

I almost got one during my acting days.

My agent sent me to audition for a new TV series. So off I went to MGM Studios in Culver City. I was directed to a sound stage and given “sides”—a portion of a script to go over. I sat down with several other actors of the “young leading man” type. We all gave each other the side-eye, knowing we were competitors.

The part was for the son of a steel mill foreman. The originator of this series, Skag, was none other than Abby Mann, Academy Award winner for his screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). He went to a career in TV creating, among other shows, Kojak.

One by one the actors were called into another room, where a camera was set up. Behind a table sat three people to assess the talent.

My turn came and I read my part with one of the casting folks reading the part of the father.

You never know how you do in those things. But at least I’d made it onto the MGM lot!




As I was walking toward my car, I heard one of the casting people calling my name. She told me to come back inside. They wanted me to read again.

Only this time I was going to read with the star of the series.

A few minutes later I was standing in front of another camera getting ready to read with Mr. Karl Malden.

Karl Malden as Skag.

Karl Malden! Academy Award Winner (Best Supporting Actor for A Streetcar Named Desire) and a man with so many incredible credits.

Here was my brass ring!

I gave it my best shot and floated on air back to my grungy Ford Maverick, dreaming of being able to replace it with a sporty Corvette.

About a week later I got a call from my agent. He brought me down to earth with the news that I didn’t get the part. It had come down to me and another actor. Only this actor had been in a couple of movies, and thus had “a name.” He had copped my brass ring!

That’s an actor’s life for you.

Skag had a cast member I knew personally—Powers Boothe. I’d been in a New York production of Othello with Powers, who snagged his own brass ring when he was cast as Jim Jones in a miniseries about that madman. Powers went on to a great career, including a memorable turn in Tombstone (1993).

The part I was to play went to Craig Wasson, who’s had a nice career of his own.

And what of the actor James Scott Bell? A few months after his miss he snagged a brass ring of another kind when he met a beautiful actress at a friend’s birthday party and wed her six months later.

Figuring a young family needed one steady income, I changed course and went to law school.

Some years later, I walked from my law office in Woodland Hills to grab lunch at Chipotle. Inside, sitting alone and munching, was Craig Wasson.


He looked up.

I said, “We were up for the same part in Skag. I came in second.”

“Wow,” he said. “You still acting?”

“Nah, I’m a lawyer now.”

“Good choice,” he said with a rueful smile. We exchanged a few pleasantries—nice fellow—and that was the bookend to my brass ring miss.

But here’s the thing. I had at least at least touched the brass ring. My fingertip skimmed across it. That is something. And it may even be a healthy thing. A recent study found that “prioritizing goals emphasizing … personal growth, and striving for meaning in life may have positive biological correlates.”

What’s the brass ring for you? Is it to make the NYT bestseller list? To get a #1 category rank on Amazon? Or maybe just to get more than a handful of readers for the books you self publish?

Whatever it is for you, reaching for the brass ring is a positive aspiration…as long as you don’t miss the ride! The ride is the main thing, after all—the carousel, the up-and-down of your horse, the music playing, the lights flashing, people laughing.

Writing is a carousel. Enjoy it while you can.

So what if you miss the brass ring? If you haven’t fallen off your horse, you’re still on the ride. And as the old ad man Leo Burnett once put it, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.”

What’s your brass ring?

More important: are you enjoying the ride?

39 thoughts on “Reaching for the Brass Ring

  1. At 10, I found that the ring dispenser on my merry-go-round had been mounted too far from the horses for anyone my age to reach. That has been a metaphor for subsequent life-events.

    Now, the brass ring would be publication of my Guardienne Hypothesis in a major journal. I’ll need a PhD co-author for that. I continue to write monographs based on the hypothesis and upload them to ResearchGate.

  2. Well I learned my new thing for the day. I’d never heard where the brass ring phrase came from. Being short, my odds of reaching the brass ring would be small but not impossible. I sometimes feel that way about the things I reach for in life. But it’s definitely worth the try because sometimes you latch on to that ring when you don’t expect it and it makes all the tries worthwhile.

    • Good point, BK. Miss one ring, but there may be something else you grab…or that grabs you. As long as the latter isn’t the Creature From the Black Lagoon, you’re good.

  3. My brass ring was having a book traditionally published before I turned 60. Grabbed that sucker and haven’t looked back! 5 books later, I’m still churning out words and loving the ride.

  4. The carousel (we always called it a merry go round) at our local amusement park had the ring dispenser, but it was too far away for this cowardly rider. I stayed on my horse clutching its pole instead.
    As for now? I guess I’m still a pole-clutcher. I enjoy the writing ride, like the idea of knowing there are people who enjoy visits with my characters, but I have few writing aspirations beyond “write another book.”
    My rings are more life-oriented now–to travel while I can still enjoy those rides.
    Enjoy your Sunday, JSB.

    • I agree it’s good to have other “rings” than writing, Terry.

      Of course, for us, all of life is material…we can’t help it. So go soak up those travels and work the deets into a book!

      • Sorry to hijack your comment, Terry. Keep getting denied. So frustrating!

        My brass ring keeps changing. In the early days, I strived to win an Edgar and see my name at the top of the NYT list. Now, I’m striving to make a difference…one reader at a time.

  5. My brass ring is finishing a final draft of a book I’ve been working on since 2009. Most days, I’m enjoying the ride. Happy New Year. 🙂

  6. Great story and topic, Jim.

    My brass ring used to be fame and fortune–NYT Best Seller, six or seven figure income from my books, maybe even a movie deal. I did reach #1 in a category on Amazon a few times when I had a Book Bub, even hit the top 100. But, to quote the movie Patton, “All glory is fleeting” 🙂

    Now my brass ring is to build a readership for the mysteries I’ll be publishing shortly and get the occasional email from one of those readers about how much they enjoyed the books.

  7. My brass ring is to finish a novel (even 40k words). I’ve written around 100 short stories but can’t finish the long form.

    It would be AMAZING (this is what’s known in the comedy world as a callback).

  8. My brass ring is escaping corporate slavery (the good way) and living the life I want to live while I still can. Tonight I’ll be at a memorial service for one of my favorite leading men (he was Vinnie to my Rosie in Simpatico years ago) and we remained friends ever since.

    I asked God why he gave me talent in music (I was originally a performance major), drama, and writing if I was never going to get to do any of it except after work and on weekends.

    He said I was chicken. He’s probably right.

    So this year I’m plotting my escape from the time suck (I do have a good job and a great team, but it’s not my dream). I’d like to do a little dream-chasing while I still can. I just want to see what I can do.

    a memorial service for one of my ex-leading men (he was Vinnie to my Rosie in Simpatico years ago).

    God and I had a chat where I asked Him “Why did You give me talent if I’m never going to get to use it?:

  9. Jim, going up and down and in circles is a great metaphor for the writing profession!

    The merry-go-round in Balboa Park in San Diego was a favorite childhood hangout. While riding an up-and-down horse, I was too chicken to lean out for the brass ring. Instead, I’d find a stationary horse and grab from there. To get the free ride, you had to turn in the brass ring. Don’t tell anyone but sometimes I gave up the ride and took the ring home.

    Becoming a regular at TKZ has been a terrific brass ring–wonderful to get to know other writers and readers from all over the world.

    Every day I write is a brass ring day, living the dream.

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