I didn’t grow up in a family of actors or entertainers. It’s been a long journey from the rural roads and fields of Lisbon, New York to the film, television and commercial sets of Houston, Austin and Dallas, Texas. Looking back, I wish I had committed myself to pursuing this career rather than settling for jobs I wasn’t in love with and spending years unhappy about it. Now I want to help others find a way to do what I couldn’t then.
Flackville, New York basically consists of a couple dozen homes near an intersection with a flashing light in the middle of farm country near the Canadian border. This tiny hamlet is almost as far away as you can get from the Big Apple and still be in New York State. I went to a K-12 school in nearby Lisbon. At Lisbon Central School, our stage was located at one end of the gym so it’s presence was always felt even while I was playing “warball” or attempting a lay-up during a basketball game in gym class. One several occasions, I performed in plays on the stage, including a show in my Junior year in which I had to kiss a popular girl in the Senior class. Even earlier, in Fifth Grade, I played a romantic part in a play that prompted my art teacher to refer to me as “Romeo” for years. It’s no wonder acting easily seduced me.
I studied Speech & Theatre not far away at St. Lawrence University, the same school attended by actor Viggo Mortensen in the 1980s and Kirk Douglas in the 1930s. In the midst of training for the stage, I met Wil Hansen, a broadcaster who would soon become a great friend and help me later as I entered the world of radio then television. While I was still in college, Wil and I even discussed his idea to have me host a TV show on the local ABC affiliate in Watertown, New York. It never materialized.
My entry into the world of entertainment would be far more modest. I started working at a video rental store in my college town. Kids in town referred to me as “the movie guy” when they saw me outside the store. A year later, I was managing a movie theater in nearby Potsdam, New York. At the Roxy, I watched every new film that came in. We only had two screens and that meant watching the same movie as many as 10 times. That gig would come to an abrupt end seven months later when I started a sales job in radio.
Radio would give me a chance to work with program hosts John Astolfi and Rick DeFranco whose shows I had listened to as a kid—and whose contests I often won. Within a year I started hosting my own show and recording my first commercials. As I moved further into a broadcasting career, I would occasionally get a reminder of my hidden desire to act. While hosting a weekly radio request show, I met actor Danny Glover at my alma mater. He agreed to tape a message for me to use on air: “When I’m in town, I love listening to Saturday Night Request with Marc Isaacs on FSR.” I played it a lot.
After less than four years in radio, I moved into television news full-time. My first TV gig was a fill-in weather role at the CBS affiliate in Watertown, New York. I pursued the opportunity thanks to my radio boss and mentor Rick DeFranco who had been working as a weatherman part-time at the same station. Then, I moved into a full-time morning weather/co-host position in Utica, New York. The next move came even more quickly as I took a producing job in Albany, New York at the ABC affiliate.
While at WTEN, I would meet Yvonne Perry, an actress best known for her role as Rosanna Cabot on As The World Turns. She’s a very charming woman. My encounter with her involved an audition she was putting on tape for the show. The young woman auditioning was the daughter of our station’s noon and 5 pm news anchor. I was the off camera reader. I was captivated by Ms. Perry, and the experience opened my mind to performing outside of TV news. Soon I auditioned for an improvisation troupe and started training in Albany and Saratoga Springs.
That improv track would be short-lived. Within a few months I would be off to Houston and working as a talk show producer KTRK-TV. In the Bayou City, I would come face-to-face with actors such Jamie Lee Curtis, Fran Drescher, and Lisa Hartman Black. That’s also where I met the actor made famous by his brilliant performance as James Stenbeck on As The World Turns: Anthony Herrera. He returned to Houston where he was treated for mantle cell lymphoma at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and we documented his visits with doctors and nurses there.
When my talk show job disappeared with the show cancellation, I took a gig at a local talent agency and training facility for actors. I enjoyed teaching on camera techniques and improvisation skills to my students, but what I really wanted to do was act. I was merely holding myself back. I think I was so unhappy in that job, I unconsciously sabotaged it.
Maybe I didn’t “go for it” at first because I was scared, afraid of failing, or because I knew the people in my life wouldn’t approve. My wife at that time wouldn’t approve. Although she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree, she didn’t want to be married to an actor. Not in Houston. Also, my mom certainly wouldn’t jump for joy. When I enrolled in college, she insisted that I add another major rather than majoring in Theatre only. Of course, more than two decades later, I know she was trying to help me. She could see that I didn’t have a plan to become an actor and she was aware of many of the difficulties that accompany the pursuit of an acting career.
If only I knew then what I know now …
I can’t go back to age 20. But what I can do is lend some support to you before you begin your personal quest to become an actor. Perhaps the biggest difficulty is getting enough knowledge up front to decide if acting is really the right career for you. If you can’t look at blood without passing out, working as a surgeon is out of the question, right? But many hopeful new actors (and I use that term loosely) don’t know what they don’t know so they enter a business with a lot of assumptions and may be driven to do it by the wrong reasons.
“I WANNA BE FAMOUS!”
I have no desire to become a household name. If fame and fortune are your goals, you may discover you have a better chance of getting rich by buying a lottery ticket. Like any credible self-help book author will tell you, finding what makes you happy is just as important in your professional life as it is in your personal life. If acting makes you happy, do it. If you can’t imagine a life without acting, then go for it. If every time you watch a film you imagine it’s you in one of the roles, then I encourage you follow your heart.
You can make money in this line of work. For example, I made thousands of dollars after doing a TV commercial for a furniture company. All I had to do was sit on a highly comfortable reclining sofa all day. Easy money, right?
Well, they’re not all that easy. I also have crawled through dirt, been covered in fake blood, and spent hours sweltering in a warehouse with no air conditioning during a Texas summer. And that only comes from getting one job in the midst of many rejections. But even my failed attempts to book a role teach me something and better prepare me for the next opportunity.
So while you’re contemplating an acting career and wondering how to get started, I invite you to come back here often. I’ll try to help you save time and money and reduce your frustration level. With hard work and some luck, you might manage to avoid spending the next 20 years asking yourself if getting paid for working in commercials, films and television shows is really within your reach.