This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

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(If you’re new to this series on screenwriting, don’t miss reading: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?, It All Begins With A Screenwriter, and Emails To A Young Screenwriter.)

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I didn’t go to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you’re interested, you can always read my book.  Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.

Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress.  She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.

“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.

It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7.  We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves.  That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting.  Where do we find all of our characters?

Through acting.

You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk.  Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition.  You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.  You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size.  You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes.  You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.

Three Steps to Finding Characters

The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes.  Here is what was expected of us as actors:

1. Observe

2. Capture

3. Perform

As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom.  We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it.  Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay.  And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.

But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters.  It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop.  You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring.  Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.

If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer.  It won’t be easy – it’s painful.  I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class.  I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge.  But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.

Someday you’ll thank me for it.

(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)

(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)

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