The Life of a Character Actor

I was spending quality time with my 10-year-old niece, Nicole, the way quality time is defined these days – by watching TV – and there on “Zach and Cody” was the lovable geek from “Boston Common,” simply named, D.C. I remembered his tag line in one episode was “just like the city, without all the traffic.” Having been born in Washington D.C. the quote inevitably stayed in my head as did the skinny guy with the booming voice. In fact, it was the voice that triggered the memory, as the man himself now on the tube in front of me seemed to have grown into his voice. Older, of course (only women don’t age in Hollywood, because they aren’t allowed to), but the hair close-cropped instead of flowing like the early nineties look I first saw him in and the frame filled out like anyone should be after 15 years. And as a pompous elementary school dean, he was funny. Fun-ee. Even Nicole laughed out loud as he berated Zach (or was it Cody? Is there a difference?) with a mop in a dream sequence. This might sound silly, but it was nice to see him again.

Then a few weeks later, there he was on “What About Brian?” (Yes, I watch it. Religiously. Judge me if you will, but ask yourself if you have a guilty boob tube pleasure or two that you’d blush to admit to. “You’re The One That I Want,” anyone?) He had shed Zach and Cody’s haughty, over-the-top kid show character and merrily slipped into the demeanor of a slightly smarmy egotistical boss to Rick Gomez’ Dave Greco. I was all a-flutter. “Ah! That guy!” I exclaimed and pointed to the TV, though no one else was in the room. I couldn’t help it. I was a fan. Here was a guy that was so familiar; even though I didn’t know his name, I loved his work. Like Richard Jenkins. Before he was on Six Feet Under, I always clapped my hands in glee when I saw him on the small or large screen. I hadn’t seen “D.C. from Boston Common” in a while. It was like meeting up with an old friend again. I wondered where else he might surprise me?

The next time I saw him, I almost peed my pants. As a straightforward White House lawyer on Fox’s “24” he disagreed with Peter MacNichol’s Thomas Lennox, trying to give D.B. Woodside’s President Wayne Palmer sound advice. Okay, this was crazy. I had to find out where this guy had been between NBC’s “Boston Common” and this rush of recent roles. Had he been hiding under his bed for 15 years or had I just not been watching the right shows? In fact, what is the life of a non-celebrity in Tinsel Town? Who are those people you always recognize, but whose names aren’t blasted across the tabloids every week? After all, these people, the ones that are continually working but whose names you don’t know, are really the people you see most of the time.

After some investigation via the Internet – starting at “Boston Common” – I first found out that “D.C.” was in fact, D.C. Douglas. Scrolling down the impressive list of TV and film roles, I realized I had been missing him constantly: “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Las Vegas,” “Strong Medicine” and a host of other roles had kept him busy. I rapidly moved onto his websites – all five of them, and found his contact info. Easy. So I called him – and there it was, The Voice. He seemed surprised to hear that anyone would want to interview him. So surprised in fact, that he laughed out loud – a great, hearty cackle, impossible to describe or imitate. Higher than you might imagine and loud enough for me to jerk the receiver away from my ear. But he was game. “What the hell,” he said. “You don’t work for The Enquirer, right?”

Turns out, this is one busy guy. Between on-camera acting and voice over, D.C. is constantly and consistently working. He invited me to interview him on a battleship in the middle of the night. But he had good reason; he was currently in the middle of shooting “Deadwater,” a ghost ship thriller with Lance Henrikson and James Russo, due out in 2007. So I drove to San Pedro, climbed aboard the USS Lane and talked with him between takes down in the bowels of the beast.

I was embarrassed, but I had to know about “Boston Common.” That’s where I first saw him, so I assumed that was his first significant gig. But like most actors, he had already been on plenty of TV shows like “Coach” and “Melrose Place” and “Boston Common” was supposed to be a one-episode co-star. But Hollywood is unpredictable, and you never know what might help an unknown move forward. In this case, it was that laugh that nearly burst my eardrum when I first spoke to him that turned one line into ten episodes.

Vicki Rosenberg was the casting director for “Boston Common” and D.C. even had to audition for the one line. Once hired, “they had me there the whole week during the producer run-through,” D.C. started. “It was a funny show and I couldn’t help but laugh. And I laugh rather loudly and unabashedly – I once had a neighbor ask me not to laugh at night because it kept her up – so the next day for the Network run-through, Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (co-creators of “Will and Grace”) told me to ‘feel free to laugh as much as you want.’ So I did. And then I sent a big basket of wine to congratulate them on the pilot. It was the first time anyone called me back to thank me… and Max said if there were more episodes, they’d bring me back. And they actually did! It took several episodes before they turned the character’s name into D.C., because they were never sure if they could bring me back… at first they just plugged me into whatever odd role there was, but eventually I became ‘D.C.’ There I was, having a role essentially written for me. I was sure I had hit it big. I spent most of the money assuming I’d get nice residuals from summer repeats.”

And then there was that laugh as he said, “The show lasted one season and was cancelled. No repeats. It went straight to cable and I made $50 in residuals for all 10 episodes.”

So what does an unknown do then? Back to the proverbial pounding of the pavement, which, in L.A is done by car.

After fifteen years and untold gallons of gas, he has over a hundred on-camera projects under his belt. Between those and his busy voice-over career, he no longer needs to have an alternate job to pay the bills. “That’s refreshing; I was a horrible waiter.” But it did take some time to get there. An actor with no contacts is going to have as hard a time getting jobs in Hollywood as a mountain climber getting to the top of Everest without extra oxygen.

An actor’s first contact on the long food chain of Hollywood is the casting director. Unless you can make friends (or lovers, for the more ambitious) out of producers, casting directors are an actor’s connection to those highly coveted and sparsely available jobs. The first casting director in D.C.’s corner was Dava Waite, whom he met when he auditioned for “21 Jump Street”. He didn’t get the role, but she referred to him as a chameleon and called him in as often as she could. “She felt it was her duty to get me my SAG card. It was a Roy Rogers commercial that put me in the union and Dava continued to cheer me on. A couple of years later, she got me on “Coach” with Craig T. Nelson, acting opposite a young guest star; Rob Schneider.” Soon in 1996, he was laughing it up on “Boston Common.”

Twenty years later, many casting directors know him and trust him as a professional to work well with stars like James Caan (“Las Vegas”), Sherri Stringfield and Mekhi Phifer (“ER”), Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs (“Charmed”), Rachel Nichols (“The Insider”) and of course as already mentioned, Peter MacNichol and D.B. Woodside on “24”.

And that list isn’t just limited to TV, either. Through numerous independent films D.C. has acted with the likes of Tony Plana (of “Ugly Betty”), Krista Allen (“Totally Blonde”), Lorraine Newman (“Saturday Night Live”) and a slew of big names in “The Commission” that included Martin Sheen, Martin Landau, Sam Waterston, Ed Asner and Corbin Bernsen.

So…no, I guess he hasn’t been hiding under his bed. I just can’t possibly see every TV show and every independent film ever made. But I’ve probably heard him more than I realize. Especially lately as his GEICO campaign has been running for six months. As the front and end voice over tags introducing the celebrities that translate for real GEICO customers, D.C.’s voice bounces around the nation on TV and radio waves.

As he makes his living behind the mic and in front of the camera, the paths occasionally cross. For the movie “Factory Girl,” the star wasn’t available to record some off-screen lines, so D.C. was called in to imitate Guy Pierce imitating Andy Warhol. “That was trippy.” he said.

At that moment in our interview, D.C. was called to set to get beaten up by Lance Henrikson. We’d covered a lot of ground during the time I’d been there – for a guy from the West Coast, he talks fast. Ideas, descriptions and a gnarly sense of humor seem to fuel him forward and the listener has to hold on tight to keep up. I didn’t mind – I’m from New York, after all.

In his absence, I wondered how he gets through the dry spells, if there are any. I’ve spoken to plenty of people in this business and the statement I hear the most is that unless you’re Tom, Meryl, Julia or Kate, you have to create your own projects. No one sends you scripts to read if they don’t know who the hell you are.

And furthermore, though co-stars and guest stars on TV shows are good gigs, most actors dream of their own sit-com or series. But the reality is that you’re doing well if you’re getting a lot of auditions and booking these kinds of roles. And these days, since most guest stars are being stunt-cast with stars (Madonna on “Will & Grace,” anyone?), getting any auditions at all puts an actor ahead of most of the pulsing, shoving throng of people trying to jam their feet around the casting director’s door. D.C. is one of those actors that has been in Hollywood long enough that casting directors know him, like him and know they can count on him. Yet, still it’s tough. But when there’s nothing else you want to – or by his admission, can’t – do, you have no choice but to persevere.

For D.C., part of that perseverance comes in the form of creating his own projects. During his next break between shots, he denied being a writer, but I know from that he’s written and produced five original award-winning short films. In fact, he’s also directed, edited, animated and acted in them. His most recent project that played the festival circuit is “Duck, Duck, Goose!” – a blend of 60’s Technicolor European romp and post-modern cynicism. Worth a watch, if you want to buy it online – It won four festival awards, including one to D.C. for Best Actor and one to Robin DalĂ©a, his “pint-sized fireball of a girlfriend, a talented and beautiful actress in her own right and a full foot shorter than me.” Three awards came from one festival in New Jersey. “They love us in Trenton!”

Currently, he’s in the midst of editing and animating another pet project he directed entitled, “The Crooked Eye,” a short film based on a short story written by his mother, Betty Malicoat. Fay Masterson (“Eyes Wide Shut” and “Man Without A Face”) stars and had to act in front of a green screen the entire time. “We shot 78 shots in two days and the first day, we didn’t have any air conditioning. Poor Fay was practically a puddle by the end of the day, but she was a real trooper. Luckily the second day, the air was back on.”

Looking at his resume of directing, I asked if he was pursuing that line of work too. He shook his head, “I’m having a helluva time pursuing being an actor, why would I want to pursue being a director too?” But, he added, if he was offered the opportunity and liked the project, he’d do it.

Part of persevering in the finicky industry of TV and film is recognizing that you’re a product and embracing your type. “I’ll never be on a show of gorgeous people like Courtenay Cox-Arquette’s new show ‘Dirt’ or a show of young, beautiful people like ‘The O.C.’ You have to know your place in the market and know it’s not a reflection of you as a person.” And the laugh, “…but I can’t be that bad; I managed to snag Robin.”

In viewing his demo reel and individual clips, in the past 15 years, this actor has clearly gone from geek to guy. The Flock Of Seagulls haircut is gone and the man has grown into his voice. An actor’s type is at the mercy of genetics and the passage of time. (And one’s financial ability and desire to combat them with modern technology). So an actor’s type is in constant flux and a smart one knows what to market. D.C. does just that, working his skills and look together.

So, then, for an unknown, working actor, what is success? “When I get there, I’ll let you know. I have a funny feeling I’ll be 85 when I finally get my own hit series and it won’t matter much because anyone I hoped would see me that successful will probably be dead!” And there it is, the laugh that seems to carry him through it all, reverberating off the ship’s steel walls until he’s told to quell it by the first A.D. “Quiet on set! Please hold all cackling laughter!” D.C. puts his hands over his mouth…and quietly giggles.