Michael Blake
Academy Award Winner
Best-selling Author
Dances With Wolves

Like A Running Dog

Volume II

Los Angeles 1979 - 1982

Chapter One - An Actor's Life

Becoming an actor was, for me, a necessity from the time I began going to school.
My father was a executive with the telephone company, and during the decade of the 1950's American executives, if they wanted to ascend, accepted all assignments unconditionally. Our family moved on average about every eighteen months during my growing up.
No sooner had I penetrated the various social cliques of one school (they invariably shunned new kids) than I found myself starting over at yet another, a process that didn't come to a halt until graduation from high school.
I arrived at Ocean Beach Elementary (in Sand Diego) at mid-year of fourth grade well prepared to meet the unique challenges the place presented. California beach towns in the 1950's, though undeveloped, attracted a wide spectrum of classes and Ocean Beach was a prime example.
Poor Navy families were ghettoized in shacks on bluffs overlooking the sea. Middle-class families (like mine) were ensconced in the higher elevations on the ocean side of the Point Loma Peninsula. On the bay side a large community of Portuguese tuna fishermen and their families, a separate culture distinguished by their gardens of concrete punched with circles from which a variety of rose bushes bloomed. The strand was sprinkled with free-roving eccentrics, the forerunners of the sixties.
Ocean Beach was my fifth scholastic institution in five years, and through the repetition of rejection, I had not only acquired by honed my psychic and physical defenses.
Not getting beaten up by leading members of the most established cliques was a top priority. Lacking the killer instinct to dominate schoolyard fights, I had already become deft at parrying a bully's challenge without appearing cowardly. I used the same technique in finding ways to ingratiate myself into the student body. I was good at sports and could excel as a student when there was a good reason to but during my elementary years (and long afterward) I became an expert in the art of not taking sides. What I became was everyone's viewpoint and, while that effectively retarded my own identity, it allowed me to survive the near constant change of scholastic scene.
Sixth grade marked the zenith of my ability to blend into the matrix of school life. I was on good terms with every fraction, even the smattering of delinquents that had spent time in juvenile detention.
I can't remember how it happened but I was elected student body president that year, made straight A's for the first and only time, and starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual production of A Christmas Carol.
I also held hands with Kay Kiner, a lithe, beautiful twelve-year-old with long, straight hair and sexy, almond eyes. We kissed repeatedly at Saturday afternoon matinees and made out a few times behind her little wooden house down by the jetty.
Kay Kiner moved away, my term as president ran out and I matriculated to the new world of Junior High School. It all traveled with me but what stuck to me most was the experience of the stage.
I only played the character of Scrooge three or four times in a dinky elementary school theatre but the experience of performing live was one that could not be duplicated. I loved the butterflies before the curtain opened, the lowering of the lights, the murmurs of anticipation in the crowd and the reassurance of a costume and make-up.
But what was the most exhilarating for me was the total thrill of performing the character. The danger and difficulty of making something out of nothing with a single voice and body was so special that nothing else came close to topping it. Even today, these many years later, no amount of notoriety or wealth or awards (including the Oscar) can equal the feeling of taking the stage in front of a live audience.
In Junior High I got the lead in another play with an added bonus. I got to kiss the girl (a ravishing blonde) on the lips.
Precisely why I didn't continue I cannot remember. All I can recall is that there were a multitude of distractions. Girls, horses, music, moving and the aimlessness of being a teenager, took me away from acting. And by the seventh grade the nature of schooling had changed. The entire thrust was suddenly different. Days of experimentation and discovery had given way to a curriculum designed to make useful citizens (consumers) out of children. Because the arts were considered useless they were de-emphasized.
I didn't act again until college when  I had a brief flirtation with theatre arts. While I remained fascinated with acquiring more skill and interpreting texts, the students and faculty seemed remarkably insulated, self-absorbed, and "on" at all times. The best parts went to the theatre majors (which I was not) and I didn't make it through rehearsals for the first production.
For a long time after that I had no contact with acting but while going to film school in the San Francisco Bay Area, I picked it up again. I appeared in a couple of short, student films, was struck at how much I missed performing, and wandered into open auditions for an original play at the Berkeley Stage Company. A number of schooled actors were vying for the lead which was finally awarded to me.
For a day or two I had pangs of guilt at acing out the others but in short order I applied myself to learning lines and doing all that I could to be in good physical shape (I was to play a tough convict).
As usual, rehearsal were a series of stops and goes and, days before the first performance, it seemed inevitable that we would all be booed off the stage for incompetence.
But on opening night of our limited run all went well. Aside from a few dropped lines (which went undetected by the packed house), the show was a success and the little theatre stayed full on several successive weekends.
Most of my fellow actors had been schooled in what is popularly know as 'method' acting. Some were withdrawn before the curtain went up, others stayed in character the whole time, some performed mysterious exercises. Though my own brains was clogged with uncounted emotions and thoughts, I took a pragmatic approach to preparation for a show. I would arrive at the theatre punctually, slip into a simple costume, apply just enough make-up to keep the oil on my face from glistening, and spend a few moments refreshing myself on important speeches and visualizing the movement of key sequences.
I was nervous as anyone before the curtain went up (more so perhaps because my character was central) but reactions were uniformly excellent. Several audience members told me that they were seriously frightened of me. The best compliment I could get.
Flush with the success of my first real foray into mature theatre, I set my sights on more professional and competitive productions.
I auditioned for a couple of parts across the bay in San Francisco and, though I failed to land roles, I coveted, people who ran the auditions were unanimous in their admiration for what I had done and were especially pointed in their belief that there would be a place for me in future productions.
I kept trying and, when a prestigious Berkeley theatre company announced open auditions for a Tennessee Williams one-act, I circled the calendar. Unfortunately, I broke an ankle a couple of weeks before the big try-out and for the moment thought all was lost. But I was off crutches after a week and made so much painless progress in a walking cast that I began to scheme a way that I might audition.
I decided to try and make the disability an advantage and, on the day of the try-outs, I arrived at an auditorium on crutches in obvious pain.
The brain trust evaluating actors could not help but notice me. Someone turned and asked me if I had come to audition and I said I had. Still, their curiosity was piqued and, as other actors performed various monologues, judges were regularly turning their heads to regard me, the massive cart that was resting on the back seat in front of me and the long, unwieldy crutches lying across my lap.
I was already in character when my name was called. With great effort, I coordinated rising out of my seat with the positioning of the crutches, all the while taking great care to keep my injured limb from contacting anything more solid than air.
With the crippled leg hanging free between the crutches, I swung down the aisle toward the stage. When I reached the apron one of the judges appeared to ask if I was certain I wanted to perform. I assured him I was and rejected his offer to help me up the side steps.
"It'll be easier if I do it myself," I said, teeth clenched in pain.
I took the steps one at a time, struggling fiercely against the sheer torture of the effort. Halfway up, I knew I had them all. The theatre was utterly silent, holding its collective breath as I slowly conquered each step.
On reaching center stage, I hung on the crutches and, battling against the phantom pain that dogged my every move, summoned the courage to launch into my monologue. The actors that had gone before recited familiar soliloquies, but because my performance was centered on duping the audience, I had chosen something impromptu, a paraphrased rendering of a Mick Jagger speech from the film Performance.
I began strong, then carefully modulated that strength downward, pausing more and more often until at last I hung my head for an eternity before looking out at the audience in a most mournful fashion.
"I'm sorry, I can't do anymore," I said.
Several of the judges got anxiously to their feet.
"My girlfriend's outside in a Volkswagen," I intoned. "If somebody could go get her she can help me out of here."
Several people rushed at once for the exit, but before they could reach the doors, I vocalized a fanfare, tossed my crutches aside and executed a three hundred and sixty-degree spin on the stub of my walking cast.
My audience gasped audibly in disbelief when they realized what I had done and broke into spontaneous and genuine applause.
After the judges had commented on the brilliance of my performance and told me they would be calling, I limped triumphantly out of the theatre, secure in the knowledge that I had made a leap into the big time.
Days went by but the phone didn't ring. When I finally received a call, I was told that my audition, despite its uniqueness, made it impossible to gauge my true abilities as an actor. I tried to convince the caller that the whole thing was a performance but to no avail. They were impressed, the caller said, but it would be best if I came back for another, more traditional audition after my cast was removed.
Dejection was an understatement for how I felt, and for weeks afterward, I pondered the setback. The theatre, especially in the Bay Area, was a cloistered traditional world that demanded long apprenticeship before opportunities for success. I was an interloper whose fledgling acting career was based more on whim than on study and sacrifice. Almost every aspirant to a career on stage was light years ahead of me in terms of preparation and dedication. If I could catch up I would still have to face the caprices of artistic politics, the "right look", clashing interpretations and innumerable other forces over which I had no control.
It seemed I was stalled at a crossroad. I was nearly finished with film school and was deep into a screenplay I was certain would be a smash.
Without looking back, I forsook the idea of acting and plunged down the alternate, far more sensible path.
I would write movies.