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! 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?