BY PETER TOLAN
RESCUE HIM: Peter Tolan loves kids (no, really) he just doesn't
always love working with them. (Photo courtesy of FX)
The great William Claude Dukenfield—you'll know him as Charles Bogle, Mahatma Kane Jeeves or the abbreviated W.C. Fields—once famously said, "Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad." Based on my own experience, I'd amend that slightly—anyone who directs children and animals can't be sleeping nights.
Let me be clear: I don't hate children or animals. I'm currently looking after a number of each, and allow them to wander my home and grounds freely. But the ones at my place are all (as Variety would label them) non-pros. Dealing with professional children and animals, that's where it gets dicey.
If you gave me a choice, I'd work with an animal over a child nine times out of ten. (The tenth time would be if the animal was larger than a refrigerator, carnivorous, or Russell Crowe.) You know where you stand with an animal. If they don't like you, they growl, bark or bite; if they do, they don't. My only cavil is that while most animal performers come highly recommended with lengthy, impressive resumes ("Did selected barking work for Moose on Frasier"; "Understudy and blowhole double for Willy in Free Willy II and III"; "Lead rat and SAG rep on the Willard remake"), and hit their marks like champs during rehearsal, as soon as the cameras begin to roll, they all but cease breathing, leaving their trainers red-faced and choking out a litany of excuses. Now that I think on it, the only animal I didn't have a speck of trouble with was an orangutan who was flat-out wonderful from start to finish. I'd work with him again in a heartbeat, but he's out of the acting dodge and is—if what I read is accurate—running a studio.
Show business animals, when all is said and done, are still animals. Show business children, on the other hand, are most definitely not children. Oh, they're small and cute and they have those glorious, high, piercing voices, but I don't trust them as far as I could throw them. I realize that's not saying much because they're small and I think I could throw them pretty darn far, but you know what I'm saying. They work with us. They hear what we say and see what we do. They know too much. It's unsettling.
The Grown Ups: Peter Tolan created the series Rescue Me about life
in a firehouse post-9/11 with Dennis Leary (center).
While casting Rescue Me, the critically acclaimed bit of home-cooking Denis Leary and I throw out over FX, I was faced with a tiny, rosy-cheeked sprite who treated me to a fine reading of the material. I'll never forget her shining face; the tiny legs that, not long enough to reach the floor, she swung back and forth under her seat. Had there been a swan or some ducks at her side, she would have been a Hummel figurine come to life. When I asked if she'd done any acting work recently, she let loose with a shy smile and told me she'd just come off a Law & Order (this was in New York City, where half the population, at any given time, has just come off a Law & Order). "What," I asked, "did you do on the show?" Her smile widened, revealing the gap from a missing front tooth, and her eyes sparkled at the memory. "I was the victim of a pedophile," she squeaked proudly.
Maybe I'm just going through a sensitive patch, but should a 6-year-old girl know what a pedophile is, let alone take professional delight in portraying the victim of one? Did the child's parents sit with Dick Wolf and talk about toning down the storyline a bit? ("Does he have to be a pedophile, Dick? Maybe you could take him one step up and make him a lobbyist?") Or was there too much stardust in their eyes? Did they run lines with their daughter after dinner? My head and stomach spin simultaneously at the thought of it all.
I look back now and cringe at how naïve I was when first dealing with young actors. Lord, how I tried to protect them! How I struggled to shield those innocent little nixies from the many hazards of on-set life: the second-hand smoke; the good-natured and near-constant use of explosive curse words as noun, verb, adjective and conjunction; the sexual innuendo that hangs heavy in the air, sometimes mixing with the second-hand smoke to create the distinctive funk of an Amsterdam hash den. They were patient with me at first, the young dears. They'd roll their eyes only slightly during my protestations on their behalf, then chime in with a weary, "I've heard it all before."
Damn right, they've heard it all before. They've heard it, smoked it, married it, hot-wired it, then made a video of it and stuck it on the Internet. These punks are light years ahead of us—they're the future, nipping at our elderly heels—and maybe that's my real problem. I recently asked one of my young actresses what she'd be doing during our hiatus, and she breathlessly outlined a dizzying list of projects: an album she was getting ready to record; subsequent club dates and personal appearances here and abroad; initial meetings for the launch of her new personal scent. When I staggered and grabbed the neck of a nearby grip for support, her train of thought was interrupted and she asked me what I'd be doing during the off-time. Other than stripping an armoire and taking the dog for a much-needed flea dip, I had nothing. "I'm writing an article," I gurgled, "for a well-respected industry magazine." "Which one?" she asked, fixing a heavy-lidded and barely interested glance my way.
I didn't dare tell her. If she ever read this, I'd never work again.