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“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
—Babe Ruth

While I was in film school and a couple of years after graduating, I took acting classes. They weren’t that different from the ones Michael Douglas leads in the Netflix show The Kominsky Method.

,I was told that every writer, director, and filmmaker should at least know what it’s like to walk in an actor’s shoes. So I took sensory classes, cold reading, and scene study classes. I worked with Arthur Mendoza doing scenes from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”), studied at the Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harman’s Actors Workshop, and at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio. I learned something from all of them.

I even learned from a couple of places I didn’t study. I cold called Jeff Corey because I knew that Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne had studied with him. I told him I was interested in checking out his classes to see if I wanted to study with him. He firmly told me that first he was in Malibu and that was too from my apartment in Burbank, and secondly that I wasn’t the one doing the qualifying. Next.

Another day I dropped into what is now called The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute on Santa Monica Blvd. A lady there told me that unless I wanted to be an actor more than anything, then don’t come there to study. Because she said, it’s too hard to make it as an actor, and too hard to stay if you do make it. That the only thing that keeps you going as an actor was that when your feet hit the ground in the morning—all you want to be is an actor. That wasn’t me, so I moved on.

Tracy Roberts was where I spent the most time. She had been part of the original Actor’s Studio back in New York in the ’50s and racked up film and Tv credits through the ’70s before turning to teaching. She was the first one to turn me on to the work of Clifford Odets and liked a short story I wrote enough to give me a scholarship to a dramatic writing class they were doing at her studio.

And it was at her workshop that I got some of the best advice of my life. And while it was given in the context of acting, you can apply it to just about any area of life. But this is where my memory is a little fuzzy, and I can’t remember exactly who told it to me. But I think it was Howard Fine. Recently, I came across a sheet from a scene study class I did with Fine, who I think was teaching with Roberts’ studio back in the ’80s.

Fine now runs the Howard Fine Acting Studio in LA and has a who’s who list of actors that have worked with him. (Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Jered Leto, Dwayne Johnson, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington, and Chris Pine.) I’m not 100% sure, but I think he’s the one that gave me the great advice below.

After class one night, I was discouraged about how I’d done. I think I told him I had a sports background and liked that at the end of a game you knew how you’d done. I sensed I wasn’t going to be the next great thing. Fine said, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” That was a revelation.

For those of you unfamiliar with the analogy, Babe Ruth was arguably the greatest baseball player ever. When I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY this summer, I learned even more what an iconic player Ruth was in his day. Even when he wasn’t playing a game, he caused a stir when he just visited a town. He wasn’t your average a baseball star, he was a rock star (long before there were rock stars).

There are layers of talent in every field. In screenwriting terms, if your goal is to be the next Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, or Aaron Sorkin you just might fall short. But if you do, that doesn’t mean you can’t play the game. That’s also true at every part of the entertainment and content creation industry.

So be encouraged— there are more creative opportunities in the world than ever before. There are even more ways to make a living producing, directing, writing, and editing outside of Hollywood than inside it. So when you get down just remember, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” And Ruth’s own story from a troubled youth to baseball star found its way to the big screen in The Babe Ruth Story.

P.S. I did a little digging and did read an interview where Howard Fine said he started teaching at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio in 1985 so I at least got that part right. I would have been one of his first students in LA and the chances are slim that he’d remember me, but he might recall giving that Babe Ruth advice. I’m sure that advice comforted many an actor, because there was only one Babe Ruth–just like there was only one Marlon Brando.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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As a fitting follow-up to my last post about Jackie Robinson, I learned that baseball great Hank Aaron died today. My first thought was being a 12-year-old baseball fanatic when Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. I wrote to Aaron via the Atlanta Braves organization requesting an autograph— and I got one! (Pictured below with the Sports Illustrated I kept after he surpassed Ruth.)

In the years that followed, I learned that life didn’t always go so smoothly. (Request/ request granted.) But getting that autograph in the mail was one fine day in the sun from my youth. And as I got older and read about the racism (and death threats) that Aaron endured while chasing Ruth, the more my admiration for him grew. To play professional sports at any level for any amount of time is a giant feat. But to play Major League baseball for 23 years as Aaron did, at the level he did—with the extra pressure that he faced—is phenomenal. Thanks for the memories Hammerin’ Hank.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.

Hank_1436

This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

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Yesterday I took two plane flights, one bus ride, and one subway to get to my first game ever at Yankee Stadium. The journey from my house took about about nine hours. But it was really several decades in the making. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit ever since I was a little kid. I grew up playing baseball and loved the old stories about Babe Ruth & Mickey Mantle.

Of course, I would have loved to have seen a game in the old stadium (The House that Ruth Built) rather than the new one that opened this year. But they at least haven’t torn the old one down yet so I at least got to see it. Having seen Fenway Park and Wrigley Field my baseball stadium dreams are finally fulfilled.

But anyway my little visit to Yankee Stadium was a good example of persistence.

Here the definition of persistent I found on Dictionary.com: persisting, esp. in spite of opposition, obstacles, discouragement, etc.

So whatever your screenwriting and filmmaking dreams are stick with them knowing they sometimes take a little time to become a reality.

Scott W. Smith

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While studying acting for three years in L.A. I learned a few things about the craft. When I inquired about classes at the The Actors Studio in West Hollywood I was told, “If when your feet hit the ground in the morning you don’t want to be an actor more than anything then don’t even try, because it’s too hard to make it and if you do make it— it’s still hard.”    

I didn’t have the passion to be an actor, but I was in film school and wanted a first hand understanding of the acting process. I found film students rather intimidated by actors which makes some sense in that they were more comfortable with the technical aspects. On the other hand I found the actors often insecure. One of those dances in life in that the filmmakers and actors need each other. 

Part of the insecurity in acting I found was it was hard to gauge when you did a good job. Even if someone did a scene in class that everyone else thought was great  the actor might say, “it seemed flat to me.” I did not find acting like playing sports where you knew if you had a good game or not. 

I think that has to do with subjective nature of acting. Just look how people fight over whether so and so is a talented actor or not. Acting is also quirky in that actors with limited abilities sometimes win major awards. It seems to me that the best working actors understand their limitations and work to do their best work within those limitations.  Stallone may not be the greatest actor, but he was a great Rocky. (Even Paul Newman said he didn’t feel he could perform well the classics of theater.)

After one acting class at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio a teacher asked me why I seemed a little down and I said something about not feeling like I was doing a great job. And he made an off the cuff comment that has stuck with me all these years, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play baseball.”

That is just because you’re not one of the greatest at what you do doesn’t mean you can’t perform at all. Professional sports have a few outstanding players that even people outside the sport are familiar with–people like Tiger Woods. But there are a whole lot of less talented (and less known) athletes that still earn a good living doing their job.

I was reminded of this last night when I saw the movie New in Town. How could I pass up on a story about a Floridian who ends up living in the cold Midwest? I don’t think it will find a warm spot in the hearts of critics, nor will it be accused of breaking any new ground, but it does have its moments.

But here’s the key thing to learn from New in Town…it got made. And it got made with Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. in the lead roles.  (And J.K. Simmons, the father in Juno, is a delight to watch.)

Free yourself from the burden of comparing your writing to Casablanca. It’s great to dream of writing the greatest movie ever made, but in practice just write the best script you can and hope it gets made. Colleges and writing workshops are full of teachers who can go on for days about what makes Citizen Kane a great movie and mock films like New in Town for being filled with cliches.

I found out New in Town was originally written by yet another Minneapolis, Minnesota native, Ken Rance. And though he’s kicked around the TV business since graduating from Howard University in 1992, this is his first produced feature film. In various interviews Rance has mentioned it took a lot of faith to realize a 16 year dream.

He shares a screenwriting credit with C. Jay Cox who was 40 when he finally had a screenplay produced. (Sweet Home Alabama starring Reese Witherspoon & Patrick Dempsey.) So just a few weeks before Rance turns 39 I doubt he’s too worried about what the critics say about his film, I bet he’s just glad that the critics are saying anything about his film. And there’s always hope that it will find an audience.

Meanwhile Rance is developing other projects. So the lesson from up Minneapolis way today is just because you’re not the Coen brothers or Diablo Cody doesn’t mean you can’t write a screenplay that gets sold and made.

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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