May 22nd, 2005

ledbetter tat

Book smarts vs street smarts

I don’t have a college degree. Hell, I barely made it out of high school having relinquished my senior year to LSD and diet pills I stole from my grandma’s purse. How was I able to get one of the most sought-after jobs in show business—the trainee program at a major agency? I lied.

David Geffen already set the standard when he conned his way into the William Morris mailroom by lying about his diploma from UCLA. He stole a piece of the university’s letterhead, wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for himself, and intercepted the real response to substitute his own. He became a billionaire, and is now one of the founders of DreamWorks

My life on campus lasted about four semesters, most of which I spent in the jagged haze of mushrooms and Roxy Music. I left with a grade point average of less than two, headed for Hollywood, and became a male escort. After a year of servitude, I settled into a relationship with Russell, my first lover, who knew someone who knew someone else who secured a job interview for me at a temp agency.

Geffen’s way was too much work for me, though, and I hadn’t even heard about that particular piece of Hollywood lore when I started. I began as a temp in the ICM mailroom then weaseled my way into becoming a reader, someone who evaluates screenplays for agents who had better things to do.

I gained a reputation for spotting worthwhile scripts, but ICM wouldn’t hire me without a degree no matter how honed my skill was in screenplay evaluation. I caught the attention of a literary agent at the rising and soon to be supreme CAA who lured me over to their side. Once there, I started working as the assistant to one of the founding partners. My integration into the agency happened so quickly that the HR department never bothered to check my references.

Twenty years later, no one cares if I have a college degree, except me. The habit of dodging the question has tuckered me out, and I come here for absolution. Very few people in my adult life know I’ve bluffed my way through my career, and as a consequence, I’ve always felt like a fraud, someone who didn’t deserve a seat at the table. Even though I’m an executive at a major television network group, I still feel dumb.

It’s ironic because some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve met never went to college. Russell, for one, has only a few years at a junior college and went on to create Alesis from his business savvy and hard work. Howie Mandel, although known for stupid comedy in the eighties, is really one of the brightest and funniest men ever who owns strip malls all over the country. Sandra Bernhard worked in a nail salon after high school; and Sandra is nothing but smart.

Billy was always insecure about choosing the Navy over college, but it was a family destiny, him being fourth generation, and when he figured out that he wanted to become a teacher, it was too late for him. Or so he thought. He cried, at times, when he realized that dream was just out of his reach, and he resigned himself to a workaday life. Billy was the smartest man I ever knew, though, smart as all git. He’d have to be to tolerate me for almost ten years.