Mr. Hoch Goes to Hollywood
I wanted to be an actor, and I am. Fortunately I've managed to make my living doing theater for more than ten years, and gained a little bit of fame to boot. I'm also a writer, and I seem to have carved out a niche in the arts, often referred to as solo theater, performance art, griot and, most recently, hip-hop theater. I'm lucky. I haven't really done anything avant-garde or new. I've just done what the actor has done for thousands of years. I play characters and tell stories about my diverse community in New York City, and about my incomparable and ever-changing hip-hop generation: community and generation.
I never wanted to do theater to get "discovered" by Hollywood. Discovery makes me think of Columbus. The idea of some Hollywood entity "finding" me and exploiting me to make me into a "star" makes me want to commit suicide. Yet although I'm happy doing theater and affecting people in an ancient way, there is always the temptation to reach...a wider audience. And of course to make more money--money to invest in my community and generation, at which my government does such a shameful job.
So, along comes Hollywood knocking at my door. For years I had turned down offers in movies and television shows that not only ignored the realities of my community and generation but often reduced those realities to glorified stereotypes and minstrelsy. However, trying to be fair and give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to be a righteous socialist, I took a chance. I took several chances, expecting Hollywood to hand over some power, some money, some screen time. After all, Hollywood owes theater billions of dollars. Before there were actors in front of a camera there were actors on a stage. And before that there were actors in the bush, representing and reflecting the problems, ironies and stories of their communities. Hollywood has been stealing our actors, writers, directors for seventy-five years. Not to go off on a tangent, but it makes me want to shoot up a movie studio when Hollywood folks come to my shows in New York or Los Angeles and actually expect to get "industry comp" tickets at the door. "Oh, we're from MTV...we're from Paramount...Miramax." Go fuck yourselves. You can't pay a $15 theater ticket? A price that was deliberately made low, to give low-income youth access to theater. But you can spend $25 million on some film that has nothing to do with anyone's community--anywhere on the planet--without blinking.
Among several Hollywood offers I indulged, I was asked to guest-star in an episode of Seinfeld. I was honored because I didn't even have to audition. They just wanted--me. But when I got to the set, they asked me to play a Puerto Rican "pool guy" who cleans up towels and jumps around like an idiot and talks with a "funny Spanish accent." I argued respectfully with Jerry and his crew of distinguished producers about the offensiveness of what they were asking me to participate in, about the power of their show. I argued that people in Idaho, Australia, even in government were already forming their opinions about Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans from the one-dimensional image "opportunities" that existed for them in film and television. When I asked how they (and I) could traffic in these stereotypes, I was swiftly removed from the role and sent back to New York. When I wrote about the experience, I was criticized for "attacking a Jew who is innocently entertaining us with his show about nothing." Some even accused me of being anti-Semitic. I wonder if they would have seen Jerry Seinfeld as anti-Semitic if he burned an Israeli flag, instead of the Puerto Rican flag they burned and stomped on during the last season of his show.
Back in Brooklyn, having recuperated from my futile political argument with some jaded Hollywood millionaire stars, I was asked by the director Terrance Malick to be in his much anticipated Thin Red Line. He wanted me to play a Brooklyn soldier in World War II. Again I was honored. The film was acclaimed before it started shooting. Malick hired several noted theater actors like myself to play the main roles: Adrien Brody, Tim Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly and so on. Then he hired some "real people" who had little or no acting experience to play other principal roles. And last, he was forced to hire a slew of A-list actors to bring home the box office: Travolta, Penn, Nolte, Cusack, Harrelson, Clooney, etc. So I went to Australia for a month and shot some great scenes with some amazing actors. After a year, Terrance Malick had made an extraordinary film with Adrien Brody as the lead. Yet when he showed the five-hour masterpiece to the executives at Fox, they refused to release a film of that length. I'm sure that Malick had counted on them to respect his vision. I mean, he's a living legend in film, and they had given him an astounding budget and six months to shoot (unheard of in Hollywood these days). Well, the executives at Fox didn't think they would get their money back with a five-hour movie, and they made a business decision. They had Malick splice together all the scenes with the stars in them, and cut out the scenes with the unknown actors. The best scenes. The release print was roughly two and a half hours. The scenes of more than ten actors who spent six months in the jungle of Australia were removed from the film, including Adrien Brody--who was the central character. That's why, if you've seen the film, it makes no sense. So much for art, even on a $53 million budget.
Speaking of budgets, a few years ago I had the honor of working with the acclaimed writer/director Darnell Martin on a series pilot for ABC, whose weekly-series budgets run anywhere from half a million to $2 million--a week. We were excited because the development executives (in Hollywood they're called "creative people") were excited about our work and about the idea of developing a multi-ethnic weekly series about teenagers in urban America that didn't condescend to its intended audience like Dangerous Minds had the year before. We even stripped down some of the grit to make it suitable for network television. Ms. Martin and I didn't enter into this with the "goal" of making it big in TV. We genuinely thought that we were being given the responsibility and the opportunity to say something important to a wide, young audience, and we took it very seriously. We also had plans to hire youth and work with community-based organizations, so that the diverse communities of America could see themselves represented respectfully on television, in all of their complexity. Something that the networks are only now beginning to "discuss" with the NAACP and other organizations.