My first day on the job as an intern at the Paul Kohner Agency was the kind of too-warm and too-glaring day that is typical of Los Angeles in early December. After a morning of Postmodern Lit class at UCLA, I arrived at 9169 Sunset Blvd. and got the run-down of my new duties.
This was back in the bad-old-1990s when actors’ resumes were Xeroxed and stapled to the backs of headshots, then physically delivered to casting directors who looked them over and sent back the shots of whomever they weren’t casting. My job was to gather and staple the headshots and resumes for casting calls, and to un-staple and re-file all the returned ones.
…after a couple hours of meditatively alphabetizing while agents hollered down phones behind closed doors and their assistants typed up a storm and hustled up coffee and more calls, I was beginning to think my new part time job was pretty sweet.
It was not a stimulating activity, but that was fine by me. I had plenty of stimulation from my college coursework, and it was nice to be in an environment where other people were ambitious, hustling, and often stressed while I, myself, was a bystander with very little to lose or gain. I had no dreams of Hollywood stardom, nor of being an agent or any other kind of Tinseltown player. I did, however, want to be a writer, and what writers love to do is observe other people in their natural habitats… struggling. So after a couple hours of meditatively alphabetizing while agents hollered down phones behind closed doors and their assistants typed up a storm and hustled up coffee and more calls, I was beginning to think my new part time job was pretty sweet.
It must have been between 3-4 PM, because I remember the late afternoon sun slanting through the glass front door. As I described previously, our small, deco suite had once been a furrier’s salon and had a small oval lobby, featuring a flora-to-ceiling mirror. I had been using an alphabetizer — youngsters, it’s a device comprising a long strip of cardboard for each letter into which one can slip papers or, in this case, 8”x10” photos. I had about 40 or so headshots in alphabetical order in a lump that must have been 10″ high and 24″ wide. Note that I am 5′ 2″ tall and weighed 95 lbs back then.
I was just crossing the lobby, balancing the enormous stack, when the front door opened causing some dangling jingle bells to ring. A small, stooped, little old man in a well-worn light wool sweater shuffled in. As the sun was bright behind him, I could only make out his silhouette at first, but something about him made me stop in my tracks.
“Hello,” he said looking from me to Suzy, a tall blonde assistant who was typing madly at a desk in an office just off the lobby. “Is Irene available?”
My brain locked in on exactly who he was — that voice! that accent! — and then he stepped forward, out of the sun, and my eyes confirmed: Billy. Wilder.
I had never before nor have I ever since been truly starstruck, but in that split second of recognition, I began trembling uncontrollably and was otherwise unable to move except to blink from him to Suzy.
“No,” Suzy replied without even looking up. “Today’s her day off.”
Mr. Wilder hesitated, about to ask something further, but Suzy looked up and said in a painfully condescending tone, as if he might suffer from dementia or deafness, “Today is her day off. She’ll be in tomorrow if you want to come back.” Then she turned back to her typing, dismissing him.
I imagine my nostrils started flaring. They probably didn’t but that is what I imagine.
“Oh. Okay,” Mr. Wilder said. “You might tell her I was here.” Suzy nodded, not looking up, and he began to turn to leave.
But no no no! I could not let this be! Billy Wilder could not be treated as an insignificant old coot! I shook myself into action and stammered out, “Yes sir, Mr. Wilder, sir! I’ll make sure Irene knows you were here.”
I actually did say that. I probably even added one last, “sir.” Idiot. And as I did this, the trembling got the better of me, and that huge stack of glossy headshots began slipping out of the alphabetizer and spraying out in all directions across the lobby rug.
From Mr. Wilder’s perspective these headshots would have been multiplied in the large mirror behind me. Mortified, I dropped to my knees to gather them up.
“Thank you,” Mr. Wilder said simply, and I glanced up to see that iconic twinkle in his eye and just the faintest curve of a grin before he vanished, with a jingle, back into the glaring sun, leaving me foolish on all fours.
Well, that couldn’t have gone better if he’d scripted it himself.
After collecting the headshots I confronted Suzy, “Don’t you know who that was?”
“He’s a friend of Irene’s from the old days,” she said. “He drops by, and they talk about old times.”
I hasten to add, in Suzy’s defense, I later found her to be smart as a whip, wickedly funny, beautiful, athletic and all around great. However she knew nothing of Hollywood, nor did she care to.
That is the true story of the first time I met Mr. Billy Wilder, and yes, it really was on my first day on the job. Can you imagine?