Every once in a while there is a moment that is so magical where all things align to make life wonderful and rich, the business will suck you right back in, and you're standing at the counter again ordering another ten Quick Picks. About ten days after I met Billy in 1992, I saw a woman on Arsenio Hall's show named Lea DeLaria. She was a loud, unabashed lesbian comic and she was making waves. I knew I was on the verge of getting a job offer as an agent in NYC, and I invited Lea onto the boat where I lived in the Marina. Billy and I had a great time talking to her, and her driven spirit was front and center.
I signed her on the spot as her manager, alerting her I was going to move to New York to be her agent. She agreed while we were smoking a joint. As her agent, it was a struggle to get her work outside of the gay club life in which she traveled, but I managed an NBC development deal that led to a few episodes of Matlock which was intended to establish her character and spin her off into her own series. Andy Griffith came and went, and no show was realized for Lea.
When I was laid off and forced to move back to Los Angeles, I was feeling completely unemployable.
"God, Terry, why don't you just start your own company instead of laying around all day," was Billy's pep talk. I didn't have my own bank account, no income whatsoever and I was completely dependent on Billy. I had to do something. Lea had introduced me to Scott Thompson who, in turn, introduced me to the Kids In The Hall just as they were filming Brain Candy, and falling apart. One of my best friends and a former client from the agency was Alberta Watson, who scored big as the mother in Spanking The Monkey. I signed them all and created a company out of the one bedroom apartment we lived in before we found our house.
Lea's career floundered from one failed project to another, as she kept busy playing the road. Her singing talents started to become the focus of her shows. It was a bumpy ride for a long, long time. Then, in the summer of 1997, George C. Wolfe casted her in a revival of On The Town for the Shakespeare-In-The-Park series in Central Park. The casting director was a friend of mine from my agent days in New York. I called up and made the suggestion of Lea as "Hildy," the tough talking, man hungry cab driver. The audition was set up and Lea barreled in there, nailing it. On the spot, she got the part.
Opening night was fraught with the possibility of rain. Her parents flew in from Illinois. I sat next to them as the lights went down. The opening number was a typical Broadway dance number featuring the three sailors singing New York, New York. It was all blah-blah-blah until the moment came. Emerging from a trap door in the middle of the stage was a cab with Lea sitting in it. The moment she opened her mouth, she owned the stage. When it came time for her big number, I Can Cook, Too, the applause was deafening as the audience instantly rose to their feet.
After the show, we took her parents back to the hotel. With us was Leslie, her sullen chain-smoking girlfriend whose greatest gift was looking professionally bored. The three of us went for drinks in Times Square and waited for the New York Times to be issued so we could see the review. We were the only ones from the production who seemed to care as no one else joined us in this midnight vigil. We went to the Times building on 43rd Street. The guard told us the first issue would be out at 2am. We waited on the stone steps as it started to drizzle. Drag queens were in full revelry as they worked the hotel across the street for tricks.
I looked over my shoulder, and saw someone from the Times with an armful of papers headed toward the door. He opened it, and put the stack in the newspaper box that sits at the bottom of the stairs. When he left, we put in our two quarters and took five papers. Even Leslie's cold heart was pumping at this point.
I grabbed a paper and opened it to the "Arts And Leisure" section.
"I can't read it. You read it," Lea said with tears starting to form. And there we sat in the increasing rain on the steps of the Times building.
"Big, loud, pushy and intimidating, Hildy Esterhazy has a lot in common with the hell of a town where she works as a taxi driver," I read the opening sentence of the lengthy review by Ben Brantley, the chief theater critic for the Times. I looked at Lea and her face was buried in her hands.
I continued, "As embodied by a hitherto little-known actress named Lea DeLaria, Hildy makes it clear that big, loud and pushy can also be the elements of full-strength show-biz magnetism....Ms. DeLaria comes to represent the irresistible, brazen essence of the city being celebrated in this buoyant wartime offering from Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green." She looked up at me with tears and rain.
"I can't believe it," she sobbed.
"Wait. Listen," and I began to read again, "And when she opens her mouth to sing, the notes come stomping out like a cocky, all-brass band, bringing to mind an Ethel Merman with attitude. Like the town of the show's title, Ms. DeLaria makes vulgarity a highly developed art." Now I was starting to cry. By the time I got to the seventh paragraph, each one devoted to Lea, it became more and more apparent what was about to happen. Stardom for Lea and money for me. My mind was racing with all of the "I told you so"s that I could lob and the cash that would come with it.
By the time I read, "Then there is Ms. DeLaria, who seems poised for musical stardom. (Where was she when they were casting 'Once Upon a Mattress'?) Even in the ensemble numbers, with little to do, she registers as the show's center of gravity. And give her a number like 'I Can Cook Too,' in which Hildy describes her culinary skills with wicked double intent, and she'll ride it to the moon, without even seeming to work at it," and with that said, we were hugging and screaming and dancing and crying. It was one of those moments that suck you right back to that damned slot machine only this time it was all cherries, baby.
The next year for Lea was a ride on the nine of clouds. It culminated with the show being moved to Broadway and I hammered the producers for special billing, an outsized dressing room, and more money than most seasoned Broadway stars receive. I had the cards, and I was playing them, baby. I flew to New York and stayed with her for about a month in November of 1998, during the time Billy was robbed of his Swatch. The Broadway version received less than stellar reviews but Lea still prevailed as the owner of that castle. Tony-talk was blazing and pronouncing Lea as a shoo-in for the musical actress award.
I came back to New York just as they were going to announce the Tonys in April 1999. On the morning of the Tony nomination announcements, we woke up early. They were being broadcast on NY1. Live. We sat on her couch and held hands. We knew it was going to happen but we couldn't wait to hear it. It came time for her catogory. I squeezed her hand.
Bernadette Peters, another former agency client, read, "Gretha Boston for 'It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues,' Kristen Chenoweth for 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,'" and I squeezed tighter as she once again had her face buried in her hands, "Valarie Pettiford for 'Fosse'" and that's all we heard. The next sound was a wail and a scream and Lea's fist hitting the coffee table so hard, her cup of joe went flying.
"Those goddamn cocksuckers," she screamed, "I can't believe it! I can't believe they denied me..." and it went on for hours. I was stunned. I had never seen such profound disappointment this close up. I used to go to the Emmys every year with my client, Julia Duffy, who year after year was nominated for Newhart and each year lost to Rhea Perlman. But Julia, being the icy Minnesotan she was, would pinch her lips together in an imperceptible sign of disgust and leave it at that. This, on the other hand, was Vesuvius.
I called Billy and woke him up with the news. "I'm sorry, Terry. How is she taking it?" I held out the phone for him to hear the fury then pressed the receiver back to my ear. "Oh, boy, when are you coming home?" he asked.
"Not soon enough, babe."