Sixteen years ago, a Cincinnati comic headed to Hollywood. After hundreds of auditions, scores of five-line parts, at least one sad episode with a boatload of humorless old codgers, and a day with Dirty Harry, he may finally be on the verge of becoming an overnight success.
By Chip Chinery
My feature films have grossed over $300 million worldwide! My television shows have won countless Emmys! I’ve appeared on three Super Bowls, done sketches with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, and tried to arrest the staff of Coyote Ugly. I’ve taken direction from Clint Eastwood, haggled with Larry David, rented a room from Whoopi Goldberg, confessed to David Schwimmer, chanted George Costanza’s new nickname, and been busted by The Church Lady. I’ve been annoyed by Sally Field, I’ve hustled David Arquette, and Ted Danson has called me a cross-dresser. Yet, you may not know my name or face. Welcome to my life – that of a working Hollywood actor.
Sixteen years ago, I left Cincinnati for the bright lights of Tinseltown. I wanted to become an actor on TV and in the movies, and today I do just that. With credits in more than 100 television shows, movies, and commercials, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I’m making a living doing things that I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a kid.
They say actors are self-involved, and I guess that’s true. Because when people from back home ask about my career, I jump at the chance to tell them what’s going on with… me! Me!! ME!!! It’s all about me!
But when they ask me “How” instead of “What,” that shuts me up. How did a St. X grad end up as John Lithgow’s handyman? How did a guy who pushed Al Schottlekotte’s camera around triumph as a Capitol One elf? I can only tell you’ve what I’ve done. How’d it happen? I haven’t a clue.
Every story has to start somewhere. Mine began simply enough in my family’s home in Anderson Township. Every weekday night when I was in grade school, my mom would watch Johnny Carson’s monologue. I used to sneak out of bed and sit just outside my door, where I got a clear shot of the TV in my parents’ bedroom down the hallway. At 9 years old, sitting silently one night on the rug in my Six Million Dollar Man pajamas, I realized what I wanted to do when I grew up: Be a guy on TV, being funny. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish this. But I knew Johnny did it, and he was from a much smaller town than Cincinnati.
At 13, I started writing down ideas for jokes. A selection of gems:
“I was so fat all I had do was look at a gas station hose and the bell would ring.”
“Can dogs do sit ups?”
“Do birds come from birdseed?”
C’mon – I was 13!
At 16, I answered a classified ad and started doing stand-up at a Clifton bar named d.w.eye. This was back in 1981, only six months after Jimmy Carter left the Oval Office. It was a less politically correct era, a time when a watering hole had no problem calling itself d.w.eye and was even less concerned about employing someone who had yet to become acquainted with a razor. My big closer was an impression of Richard Nixon doing a commercial for Maxell cassette tapes: “Back in the early 1970s, I needed a tape I could rely on.” C’mon, I was 16!
I graduated from St. Xavier High School and earned a degree at Miami University. Now a man of letters, I put my B.A. in psychology to good use by becoming a cameraman at WCPO and doing open mic nights at The Funny Bone in Montgomery, where Go Bananas is now. I hit the road full-time in 1988, and for six years I kept my nose to the comedy grindstone, working 50 weeks a year on 475 stages, in 296 cities, over 42 states, making my way up to comedy club headliner.
In 1994, at 29, I decided to take my chances in Hollywood. As an east-sider, this trek would be quite exciting, if for no other reason than I would finally see Cincinnati’s west side as I headed out of town.
So, I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills that is. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars. By truck, I mean an ’86 Honda Accord. And by Beverly Hills, I mean a sad beige stucco apartment complex in North Hollywood, a.k.a. The Valley. The complex was called The Palm Royal even though there were no palms and it was anything but royal. Like the Clampett’s crib, the joint had a cement pond. It also had an orange shag carpet from 1967 that could keep CSI: NoHo busy for years. Are those avocado colored appliances? Why, yes they are. Need more minerals in your diet? Just turn on the tap. Galvanized pipes rust on the inside!
After unpacking my cooler of frozen tubs of Skyline Chili (by the way, a “three-way” means something completely different in Hollywood), I went in search of fame and fortune. Or, at the very least, occasional recognition and rent money.
Early on, I met with an agent who liked the cut of my jib. We were talking in the bar at the Hollywood Improv when he asked me if I smoked pot. I said, “No.” Then he asked me if I knew where he could get any. Wow, he wasn’t even connected enough to find weed in a town filled with artists, hippies, and beach bums – and he wanted to handle my career? Next!
As I tried to avoid the Broadway Danny Roses in my hunt for a quality agent, I still had bills to pay. A lot of actors wait tables. Not me. My “day job” was being a stand-up comedian. So I hit the road to do more stand-up. Correction: I hit the high seas.
Performing on a cruise ship is a coveted gig for Hollywood comics. The pay is really nice, they feed you, and you’re only out of town for a few days. With the promise of easy dough and a breezy performance ahead of me, I agreed to do an Alaska cruise for Holland America. Cut to the high seas: Everyone on this ship was over 80 years old. And you know what? Grandma and Grandpa didn’t find me so damned funny! By the time the show was over, the feeling was mutual.
I so loathed the octogenarians that I asked the cruise director if there was a back way to my cabin so that I didn’t have to wade through the audience. He pointed me to a rear stairwell. No sooner had I turned the handle than the wind slammed the door wide open and I found myself on deck, out at sea, in the middle of a raging storm. Rain pelted me and wind gusts pushed me around like a stray shuffleboard puck. As I struggled to stay upright on the slippery deck, I started to laugh: I realized I had to make it back to my cabin or people would think I jumped overboard after the geezers dissed my show.
I made it to safety, but I felt like a pariah. Holed up in my cabin, it was hours before I could sneak out to the midnight buffet, disguised in a ball cap. I got my eggs and sausage, found an out-of-the-way booth, and started to dig in when I heard a kindly voice: “Mind if I join you?” I looked up and started to chuckle. “Please do, Father,” I said.
When the ship’s priest seeks you out to console you, you know the audience’s tepid reception wasn’t just your imagination. “Are you here to give my act Last Rites?” I asked. His reply: “It’s too late.”
Back on solid ground with some money in my pocket, I finally got a good agent and started to audition. (My agent’s name: Johnny Paradise. How awesome is that?) But it would be 160 auditions and three and a half years before I booked my first commercial, and almost four years before I booked my first TV show – 3rd Rock From the Sun, playing the inept maintenance man, a role I would reprise several times. The good news: That is where I had my first onscreen kiss. The bad news: It was with John Lithgow. But it was official: I was now a real working actor in Hollywood.
Other roles followed – appearances on The Drew Carey Show as Jerry the Bowler, on Reba as the school’s athletic director, a patient on Becker, a futuristic paper boy on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, as well as commercials for Bud Light and Staples. In the process, I made a tremendous discovery: I am perhaps the greatest fake-eater in cinematic history.
Fake-eating is a very handy skill for three reasons: One, if you have to shoot a scene over and over again, you won’t actually consume an 18 course meal of cold, soggy Hot Pockets. Two, you fit into your wardrobe the next day. Three, the prop guy loves you because he doesn’t have to chill some more soggy Hot Pockets for you to shove in your pie hole. On Seinfeld, in the episode where George wants to be called “T-Bone”, you would swear I am eating a bottomless plate of potato chips – but I’m not, baby, I’m not. I’ve not eaten things on other shows as well, including Friends, where I chomped nary a crouton – and that was in a cafeteria! I also didn’t drink beer in The Man Show sketch “Wife School”. Though while I am a good fake drinker, I must say that fake eating is really my Sistine Chapel.
Of course, an actor never really knows what the day will bring so he must be prepared for anything. Although I am usually cast as The Everyman (a.k.a. doofus), I’ve played a Martian, a mango, an elf, and an Olympic bobsledder – a quartet of jobs that I think of as my Spandex Period.
Sometimes my Herculean yet lithe physique and come-hither stare are totally unnecessary, and all that’s required are my mellifluous tones. That was the case the morning I spent recording the voice of Crash Bandicoot. Crash is the animated hero of the self-titled PlayStation game, who appears to me to be a shirtless, psychotic wolf with huge tennis shoes. Like so many things in the acting business, it sounded like an easy gig. Little did I know there could be so many vocal interpretations of the exclamations “Yippee!”, “Woo-Hoo!”, and “Zapoweeeeeeeee!”
As you may have noticed, making a living as a working actor has meant jumping in and out of many different livings. I do voice-overs for video games and radio spots; I shoot commercials and TV shows; I write and perform sketch comedy and improvisation in theatres, as well as perform stand-up in comedy clubs and privately for corporate events; and I host business meetings and introduce products at trade shows. There are many plates spinning atop many sticks. But what about movies, you ask? Ah Grasshopper, those opportunities are fewer and much less frequent.
The same day I recorded the voice of Crash Bandicoot, my agent called to tell me that someone liked my audition for the movie Space Cowboys and asked if I wanted to do it. There was one caveat. “It’s only $900,” he said.
Well, let’s see, I thought. I get paid to be in a movie, and I get to meet and be directed by Clint Eastwood. What is the question again? “Yes,” I told my agent, “that will be fine. I’ll do Dirty Harry a solid.”
I arrived on location and looked at the shooting script for the day. When I was called to the set, I was introduced to Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland, and then corralled into a chair across from Mr. Sutherland. Donald got a look in his eye that said, “Let’s rehearse this scene” and he began uttering the words that I remembered reading in my trailer. After he finished his line, I said, “Ummmm, I’m not in this scene.”
Mr. Eastwood laughed and said, “Yes, that’s the kind of relationship you guys have. Just like that.”
I was flattered that he thought I had the guts to kid around on their set like that, but terrified that a horrible mistake had been made. I said, “I’ll do anything you want, but I�m supposed to be in the next scene. I was told I was playing Ted, not Tom.”
“No, you are supposed to be Tom,” Mr. Eastwood said. “So, we’ll set up the shot and do it.”
My reply? “Sounds good!” Then I turned to the script supervisor: “Could I see my lines, please?” We shot it five minutes later. Donald Sutherland was really cool. During one of the breaks, when I was attempting to casually chat him up, I told him I live in The Valley. He said, “Do you know the difference between chlamydia and a condo in The Valley? You can get rid of chlamydia.”
I went to the movie premiere and my scene was one of the many that hit the editing room floor. It was a bit disappointing, to say the least. Oh well. At least I got $900 and an off-color joke from Jack Bauer’s dad.
Once you work with the greats, you get spoiled. After Sutherland and Eastwood, who would be next: Pacino? Streep? Sir Ian McKellan? No. It was the not-so-gifted warbler William Hung of American Idol “She Bangs” fame.
Apparently everything in life does come full-circle. I began my career in TV as a floor director for Al Schottlekotte, and would reprise that role in Mr. Hung’s opus – a music video in which William used all his inability to channel Ricky Martin. Suffice it to say, they were not blessed with the same gene pool. I thought it would be funny to be in his music video, because William sings like I cliff dive. There is a lot of hesitation, flailing, and people want to look away before someone gets hurt. I assumed he was doing this tongue-in-cheek. I was surprised to find out he wasn’t.
Although I was having success as an actor, I was still doing stand-up in the Hollywood clubs. One night I was part of a killer show at The Improv. We were all having great sets when a special guest took the stage: John Wayne Bobbitt. As you may recall, in the mid-1990s, Bobbitt’s wife Lorena was, shall we say, upset with him. While he slept, she made some alterations to his birthday suit. OK, now cut (sorry, I couldn’t resist) to a few years a later, when his 15 minutes of fame were about to run out. Someone decided to capitalize on his notoriety by presenting him as a stand-up comedian. His “act” consisted of him substituting his name for “I” in all the standard “John Wayne Bobbitt” jokes of the time. You know, “I tried to sue Lorena but failed: My evidence would not stand up in court.” Oh boy! The John Wayne Bobbitt – Sleeping On My Stomach World Tour opened and closed that night. Bobbitt hung up the microphone and went on to appear in a porno – an area of acting I will cede to him.
Still, some of the least promising jobs can take a surprising turn. A couple years back, I was cast in an episode of Still Standing. I wasn’t too excited about it because my role was much smaller than originally written. It was my 40th TV show and I felt I had done enough five-line parts. But I took it, and I’m glad I did. Still Standing was shot on the CBS lot – basically acres and acres of five-story, warehouse-like soundstages – where multiple shows are shot at the same time. When I got to the set, I discovered a friend of mine was doing an episode of Rodney on the next stage over. So during a break from Still Standing, I went over to say hi.
We were sitting on the floor in his dressing room when there was a knock on the door and in walks Mac Davis. You know, Mac Davis Mac Davis. Apparently he had the dressing room next door. Mac asked if we wouldn’t mind hearing a new song he was working on. He started playing his guitar and reading the lyrics he had scribbled on his yellow legal pad.
I was officially star-stuck. Mac was cool. Mac was funny. He had his own variety show in the mid-70s when I was a wee lad. It was on early enough that I didn’t have to watch it from the hallway. He was in North Dallas Forty. He’s in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He had hits! He wrote songs for Elvis! And now he was singing for us!
After Mac finished his song, he hung out with us. Like the saying goes, actors are paid to wait – even Mac Davis, Mac Davis. And since we had just become best buds, I confessed to Mac that I owed him a dollar. I told him that I had illegally downloaded “In The Ghetto”. He said not to worry about it. But Mac, buddy, my conscience is still killing me. If you are reading this, shoot me an e-mail and I will PayPal you that buck.
Living in Hollywood, you are reminded that celebrities don’t just work here, they actually live here. Which means they pop up like crab grass in the most unexpected places. At my favorite dive Mexican restaurant, I’ve found myself shooting the breeze with Toby Keith and, another time, with Mickey Dolenz – once again proving the old Tijuana adage, “You never know who you�ll meet over a chimichanga.” The other day I was parking my car and the very tan legs of Corbin Bernsen jogged by, only to be followed by Neil Patrick Harris coming out of a strip mall sushi restaurant. Last weekend I met some friends for a drink and LeVar Burton was onstage karaoke singing “Who Let the Dogs Out”. One star sighting I can always rely on is Dennis Haskins – Mr. Belding from Saved By The Bell – who happens to rent a house from me.
Me, Corbin Bernsen, Mr. Belding… we all have one thing in common: we’re all looking for the next gig. Even for the most accomplished, the moment you finish working on a job – which can be for a day or a week or a couple months – you are unemployed. You never know what’s coming next.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Next week I shoot another episode of ABC’s Better Off Ted. I did the sitcom last season – one guest shot where I played Ryan Mallory, head of security. (Guess my summers guarding Coney Island’s West Gate were not all for naught.) Now they’re bringing back my character as the subject of the main storyline of an episode. And who knows where that will lead? I’m pretty excited about it. Twenty-eight years after my first stand-up gig in Clifton, I could be an overnight sensation.
Chip Chinery Fun Facts:
– Named Cincinnati Magazine’s Best Comedian in 1991 (Politicians were not eligible)
– Won an EMMY for “On-Air Performer” in the Midwest region.
– Most stand-up comedy performances in one day: 18 in Las Vegas
– TV shows and movies: 51
– Smallest residual check: 8 cents for a foreign airing of Seinfeld
– Degrees of Kevin Bacon: 2. Kevin was in Sleepers with Robert DeNiro. DeNiro was in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle with Chip.
– First on screen kiss: Sadly was with John Lithgow on 3rd Rock
– As a stand-up comic, drove his Honda 328,536 miles before a fender bender rendered it “totaled”.
– Has seen games in 35 major league ballparks.
Need more Chip? Get to www.ChipChinery.com clips of all the aforementioned stuff, including the deleted scene from Space Cowboys
See the slighted edited version online
My Article “Have You Seen Me?”